Saturday, March 04, 2006

John Armstrong: One more gaffe and he's out

Why is she keeping him? What makes David Benson-Pope so different from other ministers given the heave-ho by Helen Clark? Why has the Prime Minister risked damaging her own credibility by refusing to dump him from the Cabinet?

And, perhaps, the biggest question of all: does his survival indicate the bar has been lowered in terms of acceptable behaviour by ministers?

With every twist and turn of the David Benson-Pope saga, the first three questions have begged an answer all week. There is no single, simple answer. He survives for a number of reasons.

The most obvious is that there has not been sufficient groundswell outside Parliament to force the Prime Minister's hand. The story has not dominated front pages or remained perched atop news bulletins. That has given sustenance to those in the Beehive who argue Labour can get away with not sacking him.

Parliament may be fixated with Benson-Pope. The rest of the country isn't. Where people do have an opinion, it is divided. There is a strong feeling he has not done anything terribly wrong and is the victim of a witch-hunt. Many of those holding this view are those red-blooded, male Labour voters who found John Tamihere so appealing.

Clark has acknowledged this sentiment by determining that Benson-Pope's alleged misdemeanours as a teacher - such as "barking from the doorway" of girls' changing rooms - simply do not warrant a sacking.

However, part of Clark's reluctance to dump him springs from worries it would be open season on other former teachers and university lecturers in Labour's caucus. The message to National and Act is "you are wasting your time".

Benson-Pope's cause has been assisted by there being two major elements in this saga - whether he behaved appropriately as a teacher and, whether, he has behaved appropriately as a minister.

The interested public is not surprisingly focusing on the former, given the lurid impressions that come to mind from the allegations that Benson-Pope burst into female dormitories and showers.

He is comfortable disputing those allegations - and it is puzzling why he waited four days before fronting up and doing so.

He is far less comfortable when it comes to defending the way he has handled all the various allegations of pupil abuse from last May onwards - which is presumably why the media silence was maintained for so long.

However, his mishandling of the allegations - the changing stories, the elastic denials - is a complicated tale and difficult for people to get a handle on. He has been caught out big-time in having misled the public. But the public is not too focused on that.

That has made it easier for Labour to hang on to him. The Prime Minister determined that his errors of judgment were not sufficient to justify his dismissal. She stressed that was her judgment. If so, it was a political judgment made easier by the absence of any wave of anger demanding his dismissal.

It is also something of a fallacy that Benson-Pope is being treated more favourably than some colleagues who were shown the door post-haste.

Clark tried to hang on to Lianne Dalziel for as long as possible. The party agonised over Tamihere for months. True, he was immediately stood down from the Cabinet while his tax records were investigated. But he was not so much sacked as not reinstated.

Benson-Pope has already had one enforced stand-down and subsequent reinstatement. But Clark could not keep doing that. This time she had to back him or sack him.

Her strategy has been to sort of back him and sort of punish him to appease those calling for him to be dumped and take the sting out of Opposition attacks.

It is a bit like the form of torture where the prisoner's head is plunged into a bucket, held under and then pulled out again so he can catch his breath.

Benson-Pope has been forced to apologise one day, suffered a rebuke from his leader the next and then required to front up to the media the following day with Clark's chief press secretary sitting in on the interviews.

The takeover of his office by the Prime Minister's staff is humiliating stuff - and designed to be so. It is effectively telling him how abysmally he has handled things.

It is also a reminder that he is now very much on notice. Clark is furious with Benson-Pope. The next time he makes a serious mistake, he is gone. The parliamentary rumour mill has him being replaced once the current fuss dies down. It is difficult to see him retaining the Social Development portfolio in Clark's mid-term reshuffle in 18 months or so.

However, he survives for now in large part because Labour is not of a mood to give National a ministerial scalp - especially if there is no real public pressure to do so.

He survives because Labour is feeling the pressure in other ways. It is easier to make examples of ministers when your opponents are in the doldrums and you have a double-digit lead in the polls.

But Labour now no longer so easily dominates Parliament as it did in its first two terms.

Now on more equal footing, the two major parties have literally locked horns in ugly fashion. The hounding of Benson-Pope has a lot to with National striving to show who is really in control of Parliament.

While keeping Benson-Pope might seem myopic, saving him had become a point of honour for Labour inside Parliament even if it appeared counter-productive outside.

Benson-Pope has also been helped by having allies in high places, having inherited his Dunedin South seat from Michael Cullen, who is now a list MP.

That makes it more difficult for Clark to move against Benson-Pope.

Her other constraint is the lurking fear of a byelection. While it is most unlikely Benson-Pope would put his party to such trouble, a byelection in a safe seat like Dunedin South would be a nightmare for Labour. National would not be expected to win - so the pressure would be on Labour to hold the seat by a reasonable majority.

If Labour somehow lost the seat, the Government's majority would go with it. It would become hideously difficult to forge majorities on legislation as Labour would need the backing of NZ First and United Future plus either the Greens or the Maori Party to get bills through Parliament.

We are nowhere near that. But such considerations are always in the back of a prime minister's mind. And that means she has to live with a minister drowning in a moral quicksand of his own making.

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