Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Editorial: Forgetful minister must go

Public life demands high standards of honesty. When politicians come to grief it can be less for what they have done than for what they have denied. The complaints that dog the Dunedin MP David Benson-Pope from his days as a school teacher may not be serious in themselves, though the latest, alleging he entered girls' changing areas at a school camp, cannot be easily dismissed.

Whatever gave rise to the girls' complaints, there can be little doubt that there was a complaint to the school, Dunedin's Bayfield High. The principal has confirmed it.

Which left Mr Benson-Pope to explain yesterday why he told Parliament last year, in response to the tennis ball incident, that he was unaware of "any complaint of any kind" brought against him during his 24 years as a teacher.

He says he has no recollection of seeing the letter of complaint from a parent, though he confirms that "issues around camp policy and procedures were discussed between the principal, myself and others, and changes were made to camp policy".

Even if he was not shown the actual letter of complaint from a parent over his actions at a school camp, he was obviously aware of the concern about his actions, which he insists were in line with school policy for camps up to that point. It is simply not credible that a school teacher would forget the kind of complaint that the principal, Bruce Leadbetter, said he received and believes he discussed with Mr Benson-Pope. It is hard to believe he would not discuss it with the teacher concerned, and even harder to believe the teacher would not recall it.

When Mr Benson-Pope denied to the House last year that he had ever been the subject of a "complaint", he must have been using that word in the narrowest, technical meaning he could give it. He has gone to some trouble to discover that the school has "no file copy of any communication with parents to indicate that the complaint was progressed", and two members of the school board at that time have told him they have no recollection of any complaint about him coming before the board.

Thus he justifies his statement to the House on May 12 last year when he denied the tennis ball incident. The denial was expressed in extravagant terms, that turned out to be incredible when the police investigation reported its findings. Whatever the truth of the incidents at the school camp, the best Mr Benson-Pope can say for himself is that there was no school policy to forbid what he did, though the policy was changed after he did it. That is hardly a good testimonial to his judgment.

The principal said the girls were given a "hurry up" while showering, shouted to from a door. There was no suggestion anyone had entered the showers. In his letter to a parent who complained, he said, "The girls would know that anyone would have to navigate a screen wall and enter the cubicles themselves before there was any question of compromise of privacy."

But this happened in 1997. No teacher at that time needed a policy to tell him not to go where female pupils might not be dressed. Mr Benson-Pope sought to give a fuller explanation to the House yesterday but was denied the opportunity by National MPs who wanted to grill him. In the course of his answers he said, "I remain convinced that my conduct as a teacher was not inappropriate. I do accept, however, that the concerns of some former students were genuinely held and to them I offer an apology for any upset."

The Prime Minister was standing by him in a way she has not done for other ministers in similar circumstances. It is hard to see why this forgetful Minister of Social Development warrants her protection. The longer he remains the more demeaned and defensive her Government appears. All things considered, he ought to go.

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