Sunday, March 05, 2006

Deborah Coddington: No winners in ugly mob attack

Sir Robert Jones once taught me a salutary lesson on going too far. Back in 1974 Bill Rowling (later Sir Wallace) was appearing on television at a time when he was often ridiculed for being a weak Prime Minister.

If I correctly recall this story, Jones and friends somehow got behind the scenes and released a mouse into the studio. There was much uproar; Rowling was totally humiliated; Jones and company high-tailed back to his home in the hills, laughing all the way.

They walked in the door to be greeted by Jones' mother, a formidable woman at the best of times, who'd been babysitting and seen the whole thing on television.

Jones was stopped in his tracks by mum, who glowered at his triumphant face and said, "That was a human being you just destroyed."

I recalled Jones' tale this week while watching the allegations unfold against David Benson-Pope.

This slow-leak torture is the Opposition's modus operandi: find a chink in the Government's armour, then hammer away until the defences crumble. The aim is to destroy the Government's credibility so voters decide they've had enough of the current lot and want change.

Political watchers are of one mind: Benson-Pope is no longer fit to hold a ministerial warrant. If, by week's end, he's no longer in Cabinet, he can only blame himself.

Rodney Hide sat on reports for months about Benson-Pope bullying students, but raising them wasn't relevant until Benson-Pope was made Associate Education Minister. His downfall has been his own arrogant mishandling of the allegations, beginning with tennis balls and hand-taping, and continuing with his rubbishing complaints from girls who were clearly upset.

But his stubborn denials are consistent with his former profession. Many parents have experienced the situation where they've raised a complaint only to have a teacher rear up on his or her hind legs in total self-justification, shoving all the blame back on the student. Teachers were untouchable.

And if Benson-Pope did, in fact, slap girls with rulers, walk into girls' showers and dorms, tape hands to desks and stuff tennis balls into mouths, then parents throughout New Zealand should fall to their knees in gratitude that this man is no longer teaching.

If bullying is his forte, then Parliament's exactly the place for him.

But while I'm no defender of evasive and deceitful MPs, what are the wider implications of Benson-Pope's demise? The dirt flung at him in Parliament has nothing to do with his performance as an MP or a Cabinet minister. His teaching transgressions occurred before he went into Parliament. He's been hounded and crucified for making mistakes in his former life - mistakes which didn't see him sacked as a teacher, so, leaving aside for a moment his misleading the House, why should they matter as an MP? It's a safe bet many teachers his age would have done similar, if not worse, in the classroom but will never be exposed because they're not public figures.

Let's get something straight. Benson-Pope did me no favours when I was an MP. When the media hounded me over my former partner's business dealings, Benson-Pope, Clayton Cosgrove and Mark Peck were Parliament's playground bullies. At General Debate they ganged up on me and made my life a misery, accusing me of ripping off authors, stealing money, not paying GST, defrauding the public. They brought my children into the fray. For weeks my life was held up to public scrutiny and my family blew apart under the pressure.

Benson-Pope, in particular, would sit and chant, "Pay your GST, pay your GST." He was relentless in his malice towards me, and it was horrible. So you could say what goes round, comes round.

I know I should now be shouting at him: "Take that! See how you like it," but because I've been through it, I just can't. Call me a sook but I don't have the stomach for this style of politics.

Instead, I wince when I imagine what Benson-Pope's going through. His children will be distraught. I hope he has a strong marriage. If he's anything like I was, he'll wake up at 5am, sick to the stomach, wondering how to get through the day; holding back tears. He'll walk into caucus with cameras trained on him, trying to hold his head up high, then behind closed doors his own colleagues will treat him like a leper, wishing he'd just jump off the top of the nearest building and stop being the albatross around their necks.

I clearly remember the nadir for me, when I finally succumbed to my doctor's advice and went on Prozac, just so I could drag myself down to the debating chamber and try not to show the whites of my eyes. I'd picked up the Herald and read a full-page story reporting in detail what an abject failure and disgrace I was to the Act Party, illustrated with a cartoon of me in a cocktail dress holding a pile of dog's droppings in my upturned hand.

But I was a high-flying MP who after just three months in Parliament had made headlines attacking ministers. I was touted as a future leader, a rising star. My past was a weapon for whoever wanted to cut me down.

Benson-Pope's political career's stuffed because his past was used to trap him into possibly misleading the House, the public, and perhaps his own leader, with his repeated denials that anything untoward happened.

Who's next to be destroyed for their pre-MP lives? If Michael Cullen's accused of bouncing a cheque as a student does he fail as Finance Minister? Annette King sacked as Police Minister if she's collected a few parking fines? Clayton Cosgrove unfit to be Minister for Building because his tree huts collapsed?

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the politics of the future, where we'll be represented only by people who've never taken a risk, never made a mistake, never done anything which could be dragged from their closets and used against them.

Because what sane person would put themselves through this? Politics is a shitty, corrosive world and there's no low to which some MPs will not stoop.

Conservative MPs might bleat on about political correctness gone mad, but destroying Benson-Pope for a historical collection of misdemeanours shows they think MPs should be as sanitised and two-dimensional as a cardboard cut-out.

In other words, not human beings.

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