Christopher Luxon's errors of judgment
Luxon backed Uffindell fully just hours before fresh allegations forced his suspension; Luxon's failure to ask the right questions of candidates & National committee were exposed; Why he's no John Key
TLDR: Learning on the job is hard for anyone, especially in a role seen as the toughest job in politics.
Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon learned a few lessons yesterday in failing to immediately suspend Tauranga MP Sam Uffindell. One of those lessons is that bad news sometimes needs to asked for, even demanded.
The CEO-turned-politician has shown again he lacks some of the fine political motor skills and instincts of his mentor John Key. Luxon’s predecessor as business-leader-turned-aspiring-PM was much more ruthless in dealing with recalcitrant MPs as leader, and had a trader’s instinct for when to cut his losses and throw a problem under the bus.
Luxon will have to acquire those particular set of skills and grow that Key-like nous if he is to preserve his current poll lead over Labour over the next 15 months or so until the election. He will also have to do more house-cleaning inside National’s caucus and inside National’s organisation beyond Parliament. Or risk being run down by the bus again.
Paid subscribers can see more detail and analysis on Luxon’s leadership below the paywall fold and in the podcast above. I’ll be looking out for REINZ house sales data for July due after 9am.
Elsewhere in the news overnight and this morning here and overseas:
Goneburger before lunchtime - National Leader Christopher Luxon stood down new Tauranga MP Sam Uffindell late last night after RNZ reported new allegations of bullying and violence from Uffindell’s student flatting days. Luxon had backed Uffindell to the hilt earlier in the day.
Blocking manoevres - Taiwan warned overnight that China was using extended military drills to control the Taiwan Strait, in effect blocking one of the world’s most important shipping lanes. FT-$$$ Reuters
Chips are down - Phone and PC chip-maker Micron warned overnight of slowing demand, driving its shares down 6% and dragging the Nasdaq down 1%. The warning adds to similar forecasts from fellow chipmakers Nvidia and AMD last week that reinforce fears of a looming US recession and weakening global consumer demand. Reuters
Falling from sky - Allbirds shares fell 19% after the Kiwi-founded sneaker maker also warned of lower profits and job losses because of a slowdown in US consumer demand and problems in China. Marketwatch
Tourism lockdowns - Beijing launched mass Covid testing, closed venues and cancelled events in the tourist hubs of Tibet and Hainan after finding over 400 cases. It extends fears China’s economy will struggle to grow this year, adding to recessionary forces in the US and Europe. Reuters
Tap turned off - Brent crude prices jumped US$2/barrel to near US$98/barrel overnight after Ukraine turned off oil flows from Russia to central Europe through the Druzhba pipeline carrying 250,000 barrels a day to Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Russia’s Rosneft blamed Ukraine’s inability to accept payments under the sanctions regime. Reuters
‘Turn it up’ - Transpower warned electricity generators late yesterday they needed to increase output in anticipation of a potential shortage of 200 MW on Friday morning.
Errors of judgment and instinct
Of course there would be more than one incident, and there was. And it was even uglier than could have been guessed yesterday afternoon when Christopher Luxon appeared to go all-in to give Sam Uffindell another chance, believing his assurances that ‘that (criminally violent assault) was it’ and he was a ‘changed man.’
It wasn’t (the only incident) and he wasn’t (a changed man).
Let’s rewind a minute or two.
Red flags? There were a few…
Kirsty Johnston’s astonishing report in Stuff on Monday afternoon should have triggered the suspension of the new Tauranga MP, less than a week after the former investment banker talked in his maiden speech about holding people accountable and dealing with dysfunctional youth. The agreed detail was devastating enough. Uffindell beat a kid, possibly with wooden bed leg, until the child was badly bruised.
Uffindell immediately acknowledged he had been a ‘bully and a mean person’ and the beating would have passed the threshold as a criminal assault. And there was more than enough doubt about Uffindell’s contrition and its effects to set most political spidey senses tingling and demand a cautionary suspension.
Instead, Luxon took Uffindell at his word and went all in to back him in front of a barrage of cameras, lights and questions, even though:
Uffindell had not told his leader about the incident, but did tell National’s candidate selection committee;
the selection committee, which included fellow senior caucus member Todd McClay, had not told him nor the voting electorate delegates (let alone Tauranga voters) about the incident;
then-President Peter Goodfellow (who is still on National’s board for another year) knew about it and had not told Luxon, even though Goodfellow had presided over a string of bad candidate selections and public implosions (see the long list below); and,
Luxon knew Uffindell had decided not to detail the Kings College incident when asked by the Bay of Plenty Times about his suspension from St Paul’s Collegiate (three days for bunking off school).
What Luxon should have done
To start with, Luxon should have been crawling all over the selection process for the by-election earlier this year. This was the first election on his watch. He knew it was being supervised by Goodfellow, who had been roundly criticised both publicly and privately for presiding over the selection of a succession of young, entitled, error-prone, tone deaf, shifty and arrogant candidates who imploded within a term or two under the spotlight.
As any Crown Prosecutor will explain, it’s the questions you ask, and the ones that go unasked, that matter. Asking the right questions to nail down the risks and understand the true lay of the land is an essential skill of any leader and anyone in governance, let alone one operating in the white heat of public life and auditioning to be Prime Minister. Asking the right questions is a sign of knowledge and skill. Proactively delivering bad news to your boss and the public is a sign of character. Knowing who won’t proactively deliver bad news and then asking them the right probing set of questions is a sign of all three traits.
Most people in positions of corporate power know there are few places to hide within a company, but that not everything comes to light immediately. It will eventually end up in the numbers and it’s fair to believe the reports to the executive committee from the underlings. But there’s often time and private space to find the booby traps in all the nooks and crannies before they blow up in everyone’s face.
But even in those reports and meetings with direct reports, it’s also fair to assume there will be embarrassments and unsaid things that need to be teased out and sometimes pried out of those reports and underlings. Any director on one of these boards or executives on a management committee will (or should) know that people like to tell the boss what they want to hear, and leave the ugly bits out.
Anyone in HR long enough to see a few debacles, will know to check with more than just the referees suggested by the candidate.
What were the minesweepers doing?
What on earth were Peter Goodfellow and Todd McClay thinking by not telling Luxon about this potential wrecking ball sitting on the back benches? That it would be ok as long as no one knew?
This is the fundamental problem. Goodfellow and McClay thought it was a small enough problem and were credulous enough of Uffindell’s explanation that they thought it would not surface. They thought Uffindell would and should get away with it.
Either if they didn’t think a criminally violent assault disqualified someone from being an MP, or they hadn’t gotten to the bottom of the incident itself, they should have known people don’t get kicked out of Kings College for a bit of pushing and shoving, not now and not 23 years ago.
And most importantly, Luxon either completely trusted Goodfellow and McClay enough not to ask them the hard questions, or didn’t feel strong enough to do it. Both are problems.
Just one question. Does he have any skeletons?
Just one question of Goodfellow and/or McLay (let alone Uffindell himself before the election) would have been enough to find the landmine before stepping on it with eight cameras watching. The question to Goodfellow/McClay about Uffindell should have been: Does he have any skeletons in his closet? But that went unasked, and therefore unanswered.
I and others asked Luxon repeatedly yesterday why he thought it was ok to leave Uffindell in place when he knew Uffindell had committed a criminally violent assault, had not told his leader about it, and had allowed the issue to remain secret even after being questioned about a tangential incident by the Bay of Plenty Times. How could he allow the election result to stand when neither National’s own delegates nor the good voters of Tauranga knew about this issue.
Surely those were enough red flags around judgment and record that required a new MP to be stood down? ‘No’ was the answer repeatedly. Luxon said he believed Uffindell was a changed man and deserved a second chance.
Exposed within one more news cycle
Within hours, RNZ's Morning Report approached Luxon and Uffindell last night with allegations from a flatmate in Dunedin in 2003 that Uffindell was a violent, bullying and destructive abuser of drug and alcohol in his university years. RNZ
"This evening my office became aware of very concerning accusations made to RNZ about behaviour shown by Mr Uffindell toward a female flatmate in 2003 while at university.
"Mr Uffindell disputes the allegations and in the interests of natural justice, an independent investigation will now be undertaken to determine the facts. While this process is underway, Mr Uffindell will be stood down from caucus.
“The investigation will be conducted by Maria Dew QC and I expect it to take two weeks. However, as these allegations have only come to me in the last few hours, the finer details of the investigation, including the terms of reference, are yet to be confirmed and will be finalised over the next couple of days.” Luxon in a statement emailed to media at 11.21pm.
Uffindell issued his own statement one minute later.
"When I was a student at Otago I enjoyed a student lifestyle, which included drinking and, at times, smoking marijuana.
"While in second year a number of flatmates fell out – and two of the flatmates left midway through the year. I reject any accusation that I engaged in behaviour that was intimidatory or bullying. This simply did not happen.” Uffindell in an emailed statement at 11.22pm.
The unnamed woman told RNZ Uffindell bullied her during their second year at Otago University and would trash their student flat after alcohol and drug abuse. She eventually moved out after having to lock herself in her bedroom to avoid a drunken Uffindell on the rampage one night.
Here are the quotes via RNZ. The bolding is mine.
"This was intimidation. This was bullying. I didn't feel safe.
"He was smashing on my door and yelling obscenities and basically telling me to get out - 'hit the road, fatty'
"I ended up climbing out of my bedroom window and ran to a friend's house to stay the night. I feared for my safety. I was scared." Uffindell’s flatmate.
The woman's father confirmed the details to RNZ, saying:
"The flat itself was completely trashed. There wasn't a stick of furniture left. There was no crockery left. There were no handles left on anything. It had all been broken." The flatmate’s father.
The woman said Uffindell had never apologised and his pattern of behaviour revealed his character.
"Listening to his maiden speech in Parliament, he talks about lack of accountability and a sense of impunity - I think that's so hypocritical.” Uffindell’s flatmate.
Suspended 10 hours too late.
This is now a problem for Luxon, who stood and backed Uffindell under repeated questioning for 15 minutes yesterday just before 2pm. Luxon can’t argue he didn’t know there was a problem. At 2pm yesterday he should have known this was a problem and suspended Uffindell pending an investigation.
I was just shocked that Luxon backed Uffindell so definitely yesterday afternoon when he had been personally misled by omission at least by at least three of the people involved, including and especially Uffindell.
I had expected the suspension before the 6pm news. Instead, he appeared to back Uffindell for long enough for half the country to think Luxon could not see what as plain as day in front of the rest of us.
One more sign that Luxon is no Key
I’ve felt from early on that Christopher Luxon is no John Key, despite a few obvious parallels and the oh-so-desperate longing of National supporters for a return to the days of stability and success under Key.
The obvious first impressions are that they could be peas in a pod. Both achieved high positions and eventually ultimate leadership in large international businesses. Both have an engaging and open nature to the public. They have a ready smile and a matey-ness that appeals both on television and in person. Both exude an energy and confidence that says ‘we’re positive for the country, we can get things done and we’re not political extremists or hacks.’ And, of course, they shared a board. Key was
chair a director
But there are some differences that I think are already hurting Luxon’s chances of ‘doing a John Key’ and winning next year’s election. They may not be enough on their own to stop Luxon leading National and ACT back into power, especially given their current strength in polls and the leaching popularity of the PM, but they are there. Also the Government will not passively wait for the Opposition leader to do himself in. An increasingly more possible (but still not probable) change of Labour leadership before the election would change a lot of equations.
Keep an eye on the Labour leadership
Deputy PM Grant Robertson would be the obvious successor and has already demonstrated his own particular set of skills in needling Luxon and highlighting a mounting (but not fatal) number of micro-gaffes.
Here’s a good example from the general debate in Parliament two weeks ago (via Hansard) bolding mine:
“Former Labour leader Mike Moore used to joke that, if you can fake authenticity, you've got it made. Sadly, Christopher Luxon didn't realise it was a joke; he took it as an instruction. I've got bad news for the Leader of the Opposition: Kiwis can sniff that out a mile away. That's why, when someone says abortion is tantamount to murder and then decides to soothe your fears by saying nothing will change, that person drops 5 percent in the preferred PM ratings. When he says that he will increase health spending by at least inflation each year, Kiwis remember what actually happened when National were last in Government, when the value of health spending went backwards. But that lack of authenticity reached new heights yesterday. It was obvious that, for whatever reason, Christopher Luxon wanted New Zealanders to think he was in Te Puke and not Hawaii. And it is true; they are easily confused.
“Mr Luxon and I are both children of the 1970s and 1980s, that golden era when New Zealand had two TV channels and a ratio of sheep to people to make anyone scared. We grew up with TV shows set in exotic locations: Magnum, P.I., Hawaii Five-O, Close to Home. All these shows made rural Bay of Plenty look marvellous—no wonder Mr Luxon dreamt of holidays on the sun-drenched beaches of State Highway 33. In the morning yesterday, when confronted with his mysterious time and hemisphere bending, Mr Luxon finally said what his social media posts did not: "I went to Hawaii in July, as I tend to do." I'm not exactly sure how relatable that is. In July, I tend to remember that I haven't cleaned the guttering out and that's why there's a massive waterfall going down my property, but each to their own.
“The sad thing for the National Party is that this latest outbreak of "foot in mouth" is not the first of the brief but memorable tenure of the National leader. Just to run through a few highlights: "Abortion is tantamount to murder.", "Low-income people are bottom feeders.", "Let's get rid of Labour Day.", "Sam Uffindell is bringing what's missing from the National caucus: intellect.", and "New Zealanders have gone soft." The last few weeks have been a study in what is, and what is not, leadership. Leadership is not what we have seen from Mr Luxon, going overseas and telling an audience at a right-wing think tank what he thinks they want to hear and slagging off your own country. Leadership is what the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, showed over the recess, getting out there signing free-trade agreements, leading business delegations, and getting the first positive movement in decades on the rights of New Zealanders in Australia. The contrast could not be clearer.” Grant Robertson in Parliamentary debate
Not the same same
Luxon was a successful leader in corporate life, but as a manager within large non-public hierarchies of corporate servants, rather than on a foreign exchange trading floor filled with volatile people and forces that were all too human and vague. Key demonstrated a ruthlessless, a nimbleness and a jovial charm that seemed to generate success and the loyalty of those he trusted and hadn’t already exited. Key was usually quick to sniff out and eliminate weakness, poor performance and poor character. The National PM from 2008 to 2016 did not hesitate to trust his instincts once he felt he had enough information.
Key axed Pansy Wong within two days of hearing in 2011 of her travel entitlement irregularities. Aaron 'don't you know who I am' Gilmore lasted less than a day after it emerged he had been less than clear in his explanation of wrongdoing to Key in 2013.
Key was also ruthless in removing Kate Wilkinson and Phil Heatley as Cabinet ministers because they had not performed in National's first term from 2008-2011.
Watch for an early Goodfellow departure
Luxon should also be insisting on the immediate resignation of Goodfellow as a National Party board director.
Goodfellow was President when Uffindell was selected and stepped aside as President only last weekend after a series of poor candidate selections in recent years, including Todd Barclay (2014-2017), Jami-Lee Ross (2011-2020), Todd Muller (2014-22), Andrew Falloon (2017-2020), Hamish Walker (2017-2020), Jian Yang (2011-2020), Aaron Gilmore (2013-13) and Upper Harbour candidate Jake Bezzant (2020). Due diligence did not discover issues with bullying, sexual harassment, mental illness, sending pornographic images, leaking private data, training Chinese spies, being entitled and allegedly impersonating an ex-girlfriend online, respectively.
An example of not reading the room
This picture below on its own should have set Luxon’s alarm bells ringing. It was supplied by National’s campaign committee to media to celebrate the naming of a shortlist for candidate selection. Luxon had already been challenged about National’s lack of diversity in its selections at the 2020 election.
Uffindell went on to win, although the 60 National delegates in Tauranga who voted for him did not know what the selection committee did about Uffindell’s apparently one-off and forgiveable incident.
Even then, Luxon pushed back at the challenges about diversity.
Asked by Waatea News on May 2 about the diversity issue with Uffindell’s candidacy, Luxon said (bolding mine):
“He’s going to bring something really different to our caucus and some diversity to it in that in that he’s really well educated, he’s had a local and international finance background, he’s a local agribusiness owner, and he’s a very committed family man from Tauranga who can advocate well for those local issues, so that’s what we wanted, so I’m really excited about what he’s going to be able to bring to our party.” Luxon on Waatea News on May 2.
That hasn’t aged well, and neither has Luxon at this point, although (as said above) it may not be fatal, especially if Labour does not change much in the next year.
Some fun things
Ka kite ano
Although not much more than a few minutes. Low single digits.
Corrected to make clear Key was only a director of Air NZ, not chair. He was and is chair of ANZ.
Yeah. I know. I shook my head quite a few times in compiling the list. An HR what-you-should-have-found-out list for the how-not-to-do-it tutorial.