Saturday, March 04, 2006

Fran O'Sullivan: Minister's crucifixion an ugly spectacle

FAT. Twitchy. Sweaty. Breathless. Sad. Destroyed. David Benson-Pope now has the appearance of a man who might well suffer a myocardial infarction on nationwide television if he once again has to face down a sustained Opposition attack in Parliament's Question Time.

The destruction of the hapless Cabinet minister - over three days of concerted political bullying - is a shocking travesty of natural justice.

It is ugly stuff - reminiscent of a Soviet show trial.

Hearsay trotted out months after a police investigation into Benson-Pope's behaviour was presented as new allegations.

But most of the scuttlebutt was in the 1000- page report the police released last year with the decision not to pursue criminal charges against Benson-Pope for allegedly stuffing a tennis ball in a pupil's mouth.

The fact is that no one bothered to pounce on the details in the report until Investigate magazine decided to put new icing on an old cake by running the allegations, unattributed at that time, that Benson-Pope burst into the girls' shower room at a school camp.

That National jumped into the fray should not surprise.

Its front bench - determined to protect their own political butts against the 23 newcomers, mostly talented, on its side - knows it needs to ratchet up some political scalps of its own.

It also knows Prime Minister Helen Clark's predilection for rolling out the political tumbril herself when any of her ministers falls over.

But the Opposition also needs to demonstrate itself as surging in debate and focused where it matters: on the real issues that face this country.

It must not take leave of its collective senses in an effort to compete against New Zealand's blogosphere in the demolition game against one minister by firing parliamentary allegations - which are unfounded on the so-called evidence presented in this week's McCarthyist attack - that Benson-Pope is a "pervert".

Judith Collins - a lawyer herself - lost all sense of proportion when she fired that particular allegation across the House.

Try that in front of a real Court of Justice - instead of within our very own parliamentary Star Chamber - and see what short shrift you would get from a High Court judge for your prosecutory efforts.

What is lacking in this affair is real corroboratory evidence.

Neither Collins nor Bill English - who at least examined the systemic issues involved - could back up that particular sally.

Some former pupils of Bayfield High have since come forward to say there was no way the ex-teacher would have seen them in a state of undress.

At the very least somebody - anybody - please present a line-of-sight diagram to show if it was even physically possible in the first place.

I find it astonishing that National leader Don Brash - one of a big swag of New Zealand notables who signed a petition for an inquiry into the Peter Ellis affair - should put his name to such an inquisition.

Brash, after all - and a number of notable editors - thought the allegations that a Christchurch creche was basically a paedophile cesspit verged on the Salem witch trial hysteria.

Like Ellis, Benson-Pope is physically unattractive. If he looked anything like the handsome male teacher from my own school days who, shortly after everybody packed off to university, set up shop with an attractive former pupil, I suspect the furore would have been much less frenzied.

There is an issue also over whether Brash himself could have withstood such personal scrutiny through a hindsight mirror.

Would a board of directors today be quite so tolerant of a managing director who decided to have a fling with a subordinate, leading to the destruction of both their marriages?

I personally think it's their own business.

But some boards wouldn't.

Do we really want our Parliament - and our news media, for that matter - to descend into a British-style of public life where people of substance will not put themselves forward for politics for fear that even the most minor skeletons in their cage will be publicly rattled?

It may sell newspapers and make for compulsive television viewing but it is destructive.

While National was plumbing the political depths it was not turning its attention to the issues that matter: our declining trade figures, the Government's attempt to turn around business confidence without implementing the policies that will really help - the new savings scheme, the blowout in the Auckland roading situation, the crumbling power system.

All of these are issues that matter.

We all know Clark's decision to stand by Benson-Pope is born of expediency and self-regard for political longevity - her own.

Her "take no prisoners" style is well known.

But she had no difficulty, and neither did some National MPs, rubbing shoulders in Auckland with former United States President Bill Clinton, whose own proven sexual transgressions have long been swept behind him.

There will be enormous hurdles, of course, if Clark does allow Benson-Pope the chance to rebuild his credibility as a Cabinet minister.

But National demeans itself by making him the target of impeachment games. He's just not worth it.

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