Thursday, March 02, 2006

John Armstrong: Preparing to unleash the nuclear option

How much more punishment can the Government take before it cuts David Benson-Pope loose?

The story just will not die. Allegation continues to pile on allegation. Parliament is consumed with nothing else. Mr Benson-Pope's humiliation comes daily. Now, the one thing he cannot afford to lose as a politician - trust in his word - is under serious question.

Yet, the Prime Minister seems ever more determined to hang on to him. Her strategy involves stifling the still relatively few calls for his dumping by hanging him out to dry instead, first by forcing an apology out of him and then by giving him a public ticking-off.

But she is very angry with him. Labour is hurting - badly. That was evident during another ugly afternoon in Parliament yesterday with Labour ministers threatening no less than three times to dish the dirt on National and singling out Gerry Brownlee, another former teacher, for possible retaliation.

To respond in that fashion would be the parliamentary equivalent of a nuclear first strike - an option to be avoided. It is an unwritten convention not to retaliate in kind because that risks open slather. Who knows where that might end and everyone would be the loser.

The warning shots were fired during a dramatic question-time in which Mr Benson-Pope was described variously as a pervert, a bully and a liar by Act's Rodney Hide and National's Judith Collins - his chief tormentors.

Those epithets were immediately ruled out of order, but the minister faced a real moment of truth when quizzed about a new allegation that he entered girls' changing rooms during school camps while teaching at Dunedin's Bayfield High School.

The latest claim is serious as it alleges this happened during a camp in the year after the school's revision of its policy on pupil supervision - a tightening of procedures which had been prompted by a parent complaining about his behaviour.

Judith Collins put it to him straight. Had he ever entered a girls' changing room after the school had altered its policy in 1997? He replied that he was not aware of any further allegations in that regard, adding "I do not believe any of my actions have ever been outside the school policy at the time".

Labour hearts sank in unison. It was not the categorical denial his colleagues had been hoping to hear. But then it is his categorical denials which have landed him in so much trouble - a point made earlier by none other than the Prime Minister.

She told the House that Mr Benson-Pope's statement in Parliament last May that he was "not aware" of any complaints against him had been an "error of judgment". It appears a complaint is only a complaint if Mr Benson-Pope decides it is.

Helen Clark remarked that most people - including herself - would have regarded a letter complaining about a teacher to be a letter of complaint. However, because he had not breached school policy or been subject to any disciplinary action, Mr Benson-Pope had not felt the parent's letter amounted to a complaint.

That was an error of judgment. But it was not sufficient reason to dismiss a minister. "That is my judgment," she thundered in conclusion, eyeballing the Opposition benches and further raising the stakes for Labour.

The response from both Mr Hide and National's Don Brash was to query why she was risking her own credibility on Mr Benson-Pope when she had previously been quick to sack errant ministers.

But she is not the only one weighing in behind him. MPs of the stature of Michael Cullen, Steve Maharey, Phil Goff and even Winston Peters have sprung to the minister's defence in Parliament this week.

If he goes, there is going to be rather a lot of egg on some rather important faces. Which makes it even more likely that he won't.

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