Tuesday, February 28, 2006

John Armstrong: Clark has only one option

The Prime Minister now has little option but to cut her losses and sack David Benson-Pope.

He should have been shown the door yesterday but escaped dismissal because Helen Clark was prepared to take him on his word.

His assurance to the Prime Minister is now very much in question after it was directly contradicted by his former school principal.

The minister's credibility has hit rock bottom. He is now a total and utter liability as a Cabinet minister.

Over the weekend, he dismissed as "nonsense" allegations that at a school camp during his teaching days at Bayfield High School in Dunedin he burst into the girls' dormitory and showers while 14-year-old girls were undressed. The school's investigation of a complaint laid against him found otherwise.

The minister insists he was unaware of the complaint.

But it beggars belief that he did not know (or forgot) that a complaint was laid with the school; that he was unaware the school investigated the complaint; and that he likewise did not know the school altered its rules on the supervision of male and female pupils as a result of that investigation.

However, the school's principal at the time, Bruce Leadbetter, last night said he could recall the complaint and recalls raising it with Mr Benson-Pope.

If the minister did know about the complaint, he has arguably misled Parliament but unquestionably has misled the public.

Helen Clark had been firmly of the view he stay. His fate now rests on whether the public believes him - and whether the PM feels she can still believe him.

His difficulty is that his track record means he will be judged guilty before he can prove his innocence.

It is not just his alleged behaviour in his previous career that has tripped him up. It is his subsequent mishandling of those allegations that has been the real problem.

Last year's allegations of assault were dismissed by him as "ridiculous" only for the police later to determine there were two prima facie cases. Last weekend's allegations were described by him as "nonsense", only for the school to later confirm that it had accepted that the parent lodging the complaint had reason for her concern.

From here on, whatever he says or does as a minister will no longer carry any weight. That is untenable for someone who holds such a major portfolio as Social Development.

He is now a passenger whom his Labour colleagues can ill-afford to carry for the next three years.

Helen Clark may be acting out of loyalty or a refusal to give National the satisfaction of being able to claim a ministerial scalp or fear of a byelection. Or all three.

But keeping him in his post paints her third-term Administration exactly as National wants the public to see it: increasingly arrogant, self-serving and out of touch.

Mr Benson-Pope's immediate challenge is to survive being rotisserie-grilled inside Parliament over the next three days, while the Prime Minister gauges the temperature outside before finally determining whether he stays or goes. But Helen Clark may have already had enough.

Whatever, he is dead meat.

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