Sunday, March 05, 2006

Matt McCarten: Benson-Pope saga case of gutter politics

I was in Parliament last Friday and ran into a former colleague who now works for David Benson-Pope. I asked him how it was going.

"Well we're still there, so we must be doing something right," he smirked.

He meant it as an insider's joke about his Minister of course. But it does prove the adage that a week really is a long time in politics.

You wouldn't want to put your mortgage on Benson-Pope still being there much longer.

I went to the same high school Benson-Pope taught at, although I wasn't there at the same time as him. Another confession is that I've barely read any of the spew coming out of Parliament on it.

I find personal smear jobs for political ends distasteful.

Don't get me wrong: I can roll around in the gutter with the best of them. But one of the things I like about New Zealand politics is that politicians usually play the ball, not the person. I can't say that's been true all the time - and this is one of those times.

Most of us worked out when allegations first arose that Benson-Pope had probably been a bully when he was a teacher. Most of us had teachers like that at some time.

My experience of successful politicians is that they all tend to be bullies and control freaks. Teachers who become politicians are even worse. It must be all those years playing God in the classroom.

When these allegations first surfaced, Benson-Pope should have simply said that although he doesn't recall the specific events, there were some things he had done as a teacher he wouldn't do today. He should also have apologised to any former student that felt that he acted in a way that was unfair or inappropriate. If he'd done this, I'm sure the public would have moved on.

The police investigation last year pretty much confirmed that Benson-Pope crossed the line in disciplining students. The police report effectively said that the accusers were right but too much time had passed and the complaints weren't worth proceeding with. So it was astonishing and disturbing that Benson-Hope's press secretary pre-empted the police report and tried to spin to the public that it cleared his boss. Any public sympathy for his plight would have evaporated at this self-serving manoeuvre. Since then, Benson-Pope's denials have given Opposition politicians a green light to take him out.

If his accusers really wanted truth and justice done, they should have given all these new allegations to the police last year. Bringing it up now smells more of politics than justice. Rodney Hide's and Judith Collins' tag-team act last week must rank as one of the most unpleasant and sordid episodes the House has seen. But it has achieved its political objective and resulted in even his staunchest defenders backing off. The smell of death is starting to take hold.

I'm sure Hide and Collins can justify their attacks as clever politics. There is no question that if the Opposition takes out Benson-Pope, Labour will have some trouble - Benson-Pope is one of the party's talents.

I would concede that it makes good strategic sense by National and Act to attack.

I spoke to a senior Opposition parliamentarian this week who told me that no one believes that Benson-Pope went into the dormitory for any other reason but to hurry the girls up. I wonder if politicians who are now calling Benson-Pope a pervert think about what they are doing to his wife and school-age children. It isn't much fun being the child of a politician at the best of times. This week must be hell for them. Apparently Benson-Pope wasn't even in an area where he could see any girls in an undressed state. But no matter what happens now Benson-Pope will be remembered as a male teacher who tried to peek at schoolgirls in the semi-nude.

The Opposition politician I spoke with claimed it would be a king hit to take Benson-Pope out. I was grateful he at least had the decency to blush when I questioned the ethics of his position if he didn't believe that particular story about Benson-Pope.

But Benson-Pope's political opponents will dish this stuff until someone snaps. If he does finally goes down they can all wink and smirk at their victory. It may be good politics but it makes me sick.

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