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PM's Presser: Benson-Pope Defended - Musharraf

Prime Minister's Post-Cabinet Press Conference Monday, 13 June 2005

Benson-Pope Defended - Musharraf Visit

By Kevin List

Prime Minister Defends David Benson-Pope
President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan To Visit This Week

Prime Minister Helen Clark surrounded by exquisite wood panelling in Parliament House.

Most post-cabinet press conferences are held in a vilely-decorated auditorium on the ground floor of the Beehive. This unpleasant throwback to the worst sins of 1970s interior design is at present being re-decorated. For this reason, the post-cabinet press conference yesterday was held in the magnificent surroundings of Parliament House's legislative council chamber.

The wood-panelled surroundings were both pleasant to the eye and somehow soothing. A few weeks ago the post-cabinet press conference had been held in the Labour caucus room. There had been some tension and general titchiness between the media and the Prime Minister in this rather intimate environment. The exquisite carpentry and tasteful furnishing of the legislative council chamber escaped any raised voices as the Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's visit and the allegations concerning David Benson Pope occupied the media and the Prime Minister.


Prime Minister Defends David Benson-Pope

Last week David Benson Pope returned to work in the Fisheries and Associate Environment portfolios. Mr Benson-Pope also released copies of information supporting his version of events regarding accusations made relating to his time as a teacher in the mid 1980s.

The Prime Minister had studied the sheaf of documents from former pupils and staff of Bayfield High school in Dunedin he released.

"I have read myself the material that David Benson-Pope released and would defy anyone in this room to say it [the material] isn't compelling," she said.

ACT leader Rodney Hide wasn't in the room but would probably disagree that the material released by Mr Benson-Pope was indeed compelling.

Mr Hide has championed the cause of the former pupils who have made the allegations concerning Mr Benson Pope. On Mr Hide's internet political diary there are screeds of entries relating to the case.

"I have never before seen a grown man cry in front of his children like I saw that day. He did that as he described to me how David Benson-Pope bullied and humiliated [him] throughout his High School days. Our school system failed these men when they were just kids. And Helen Clark put the man responsible in charge of the whole system," wrote Mr Hide on 17 May 2005.

Among the documents released by Mr Benson-Pope to defend himself was a letter from a senior master of Bayfield High, Lee Smith.

"Having worked with you for 16 years I can categorically say that there was never an incident in which bullying by you was ever reported. In my view it never took place," wrote Mr Smith.

Mr Benson-Pope also included a number of letters from former pupils, some of which he has forwarded to the Police. In these letters allegations are made by former pupils that Mr Benson-Pope's accusers were themselves bullies.

"I remember Aaron Tasker but not the other two. I can remember he use to go around with a group of 10-12 others from your year & the year between us. They were known as the group to stay well clear of because of the trouble they caused," wrote Steve Cox

Another anonymous email released by Mr Benson-Pope states "never did I see him [Mr Benson-Pope] bully anyone during all of this time. If there is a bully in this whole affair it was Benson-Pope's chief accuser who I distinctly remember callously picking a fight for the fun of it with a newly arrived refugee from South East Asia."

Numerous other emails released by Mr Benson Pope catalogue a rein of terror instituted by a group of youths which included the accusers of Mr Benson-Pope shown by TV3 (Mr Weaver and Mr Tasker). The ringleaders of this group's names are blanked out. However, Scoop understands these individuals are among the other pupils who have made allegations concerning Mr Benson-Pope.

Mr Tasker couldn’t remember bullying anyone. “I don’t recall bullying anyone," he told the Sunday News in late May. Mr Weaver has denied being a bully in an article in the Dominion Post.

The Prime Minister seemed convinced that Mr Benson-Pope was innocent of the allegations levelled against him by these former students. "The allegations that have come forward are so out of character that you would find them very hard to believe," she said.

Mr Hide has so far not commented on the counter-allegations that the former pupils who he is supporting were themselves bullies. However in late May, in response to a column by Kerre Woodham in the Herald on Sunday, Mr Hide complained on his internet diary that:

"Lefties are doing all sorts of contortions defending a teacher tying a pupil up and jamming a tennis ball in his mouth. It ain't easy for them. This is the same left that bleat endlessly on about Abu Graib[sic], parents smacking toddlers, and shock-horror pictures of Saddam Hussein in his jocks."

Mr Hide will be unlikely to have the chance of collaring Mr Benson Pope in the House regarding these allegations of pupil mistreatment, due to Mr Benson-Pope continuing to stand down from the role of Associate Minister of Education.

"There are specific allegations relating to education which an inquiry is being conducted on and I think we'll just let that run its course," explained the Prime Minister in relation to a question regarding why Mr Benson-Pope would not be resuming his position as Associate Minister of Education.


President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan To Visit This Week

President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan will be paying New Zealand a visit later this week. New Zealand has a number of military personnel in neighbouring Afghanistan. The Prime Minister considered this would be a likely topic of conversation between the two leaders

"From our point of view Pakistan is of great interest because of its proximity to Afghanistan. It has a long and difficult border with Afghanistan and in the vicinity of that border the Al-Qaeda and Taliban people find their refuge. We have people in Afghanistan and [we] are intensely interested in how it [Afghanistan] moves towards stability and the Pakistani perspective will be of great interest to us," she said.

Mr Musharraf came to power in a military coup. The Prime Minister considered that since that time Pakistan has "gone back on a constitutional track". Pakistan has now been reinstated to the Councils of the Commonwealth from which it was expelled following the coup that installed Mr Musharraf as Pakistan’s leader. The Prime Minister believed Mr Musharraf's visit may be linked to ongoing diplomatic efforts in their quest for rehabilitation in the Commonwealth.

Whilst in New Zealand Mr Musharraf would be looking at New Zealand's modern dairy farming industry and would also be paying a visit to a leading information technology firm Navman.

The Prime Minister expressed concern at the ongoing build-up of nuclear weapons on the Indian subcontinent but considered nuclear tension between Pakistan and India to be easing.

"It is fair to note that in recent years there has been a lot more contact between India and Pakistan at the highest level and the outlook is much more optimistic than it has been for some time," she said.

The place of women's rights in Pakistan was also floated by a journalist. At present this was not in the Prime Minister's briefing papers.

"I am sure the rights of women [in Pakistan] are nothing like what we would expect in our own country. I haven't had my attention drawn to anything specific that I should be raising."


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