Wednesday, March 01, 2006

John Armstrong: Labour hangs tough, for the moment

His face yesterday bore the furrowed weariness of someone defeated by the pressure, but David Benson-Pope survives. Labour is going to tough this one out.

It is hanging tough because public pressure for the Social Development Minister to be dumped has not reached anything like a critical mass.

To forestall that happening, Labour's damage control machine yesterday lumbered into action. Mr Benson-Pope offered an apology of sorts and an explanation of sorts. His colleagues variously sought to further confuse and defuse things in order to shore up the minister's fast-evaporating credibility.

They deliberately raised irrelevant side-issues to further complicate things and sow doubt in people's minds so that they suspend judgment.

The minister's single-page personal statement begged more questions than it answered, however.

It also revealed a significant shift in his position through a subtle change of language.

All along, he has insisted he was not aware of a letter from a parent complaining about his behaviour at a school camp in 1997 when he was teaching at Dunedin's Bayfield High School.

He says he was therefore being honest when last weekend he dismissed new allegations that he burst into female dormitories and a shower block as "a nonsense".

However, it stretches credulity that he had no knowledge of the school investigating a parent's complaint against him - an investigation which resulted in a tightening up of procedures for supervising male and female pupils at school camps.

To compound things, Mr Benson-Pope has now admitted that "issues" around camp policies and procedures were discussed by himself, the then principal Bruce Leadbetter and others, and changes were made.

What were these "issues"? The minister's office declined to elaborate.

But they must have related to a "male presence in [the] girls' area" - as Mr Leadbetter delicately put it in his draft reply to the parent.

The public is now expected to believe Mr Benson-Pope took part in a discussion without knowing or asking what had prompted it.

The minister's personal explanation has another gaping hole. He is no longer adamant about being unaware of any complaint of any kind.

He now has "no recollection" of ever having seen the letter of complaint - a far safer stance to take.

To defuse things further, he also apologised for any "upset" he had caused to former students.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has stood four-square behind him - at least in her public statements.

She does not believe a male teacher merely giving a hurry-up to some female pupils at a school camp warrants a ministerial sacking. Neither is she going to give National that pleasure.

But Mr Benson-Pope is on notice. It is understood she is demanding he be upfront from hereon about his past.

In backing him rather than sacking him, however, Helen Clark and the wider Labour Party are having to absorb the collateral damage.

There is a limit to how much can be sustained. Labour will be mindful that further allegations may yet emerge. Mr Benson-Pope is not out of the woods yet.

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