Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

David Benson-Pope


Never underestimate the capacity of politicians in trouble to throw false scents or ink the water like octopuses. Or the capacity of journalists to lose direction as a result. Since David Benson-Pope stood aside from the Cabinet on 16 May there have been endless Beehive smoke-screens, and shooting of messengers. Anything but face up to the basic issue. That is the strong suspicion that the minister misled Parliament in a blatant manner. In a fit of self-righteous conversion to political correctness, Benson- Pope decided that as Associate Education minister he would start a campaign against bullying. Suddenly his teaching past came back to haunt him. The anti-bullying campaigner was a bully, it is alleged, and by the sound of his parliamentary nickname "brown shirt", may still be. Politicians should remember that their pasts can catch up. They should pause before saying "I find such allegations ridiculous, and I refute them". Our not very literate language teacher meant "reject", of course, because he offered no refutation of the charges at all. If he had, he mightn't be in such a fix. But his meaning was clear. Worse, he added for good measure, that if the bullying of which he was accused had occurred, then it was "clearly illegal". Simple issue for Parliament: if those acts happened, but Benson-Pope denied them in Parliament, then he committed one of Parliament's cardinal sins. He lied. John Profumo in 1963 in the House of Commons, several British ministers in later years, and more recently Labour's Lianne Dalziel all had their careers terminated or damaged because of misleading the House.

Since last week, however, clouds of obfuscation have emitted from the Beehive. Even the editor of the New Zealand Herald got it wrong in an editorial on 19 May that mostly missed the point staring us in the face. When Helen Clark agreed to Mr Benson-Pope standing aside, she did so because of the prima facie evidence provided tellingly by TV3 that he had lied to Parliament. The nature of, or appropriateness of, his behaviour in the class room, has never been more than a secondary issue. Sending the matters to the Police is the biggest smokescreen of all. They can't deal with parliamentary privilege: it belongs with Parliament's Privileges Committee. That committee's raison d'etre is defence of the integrity of the institution against liars. The public should be able to believe the words of MPs and especially ministers. The committee should meet forthwith, summon Mr Benson-Pope's accusers, and decide whether a breach occurred. The trouble with politics these days is that no one believes that the government majority on the committee would do the right thing, even if the evidence was clear. This means the Prime Minister has no option but to have a proper investigation by an outsider such as a QC.

The secondary issues in the Benson-Pope saga have some interest nonetheless. School punishment has changed radically in recent years. I got the strap and cane as did most over-talkative children of my era. Mr Benson-Pope's accusers admit they were difficult kids. My English master in 5A at Mt Albert Grammar, "Butch" Brown, was a legendary figure. Above his blackboard was a long cane wrapped tightly in barbed wire. Shivers ran down spines as we stared at it. He never used it, but the thought that he might meant we followed instructions. In earlier days, legend had it, he'd told a boy that he'd teach him English even if he had to whack it through the seat of his pants! Decades later, no MAGS teacher is remembered with more affection than Butch. We learnt much from him. My interest in theatre and quality novels is directly attributable to him. I suspect we'll realise one day that the softening of discipline in schools is a factor in the growing illiteracy and lower standards that pervade today's educational world. But stuffing a tennis ball in someone's mouth and strapping hands to a desk - assuming it happened - would have been regarded as over the top, even in Butch's heyday.

It's pleasing to see people wrestling with the way standards change over time. It's a key issue with the Waitangi industry where we use today's norms to judge our past. Let's hope that politicians give more thought to this complex area as they deal with Maori policy, as well as education, in the run-up to the election. Meantime Parliament should deal with Mr Benson-Pope according to accepted rules and practices.