Bullying claims miss the point

In the middle of last week David Benson-Pope was in danger of becoming just another footnote to parliamentary history.

He has been under intense and sustained pressure from opposition politicians for several weeks now over allegations of bullying, insensitive and inappropriate behaviour during his time as a secondary school teacher in Dunedin.

Even he now admits that the allegations themselves could have been dealt with in a far more sensible and upfront manner from the outset. Many of the alleged actions were inappropriate even for the times in which they occurred but a forthright statement to the effect that – “Look, I’m sorry people were upset by things I did when I was teaching 20 years ago and I realise I should have handled some things differently but remember there was a different culture operating at the time and things that look bad in hindsight weren’t such an issue then.”

Virtually all parents and grandparents reading this will recall the culture of classrooms from their past where beatings were a regular occurrence and the use of ridicule and sarcasm were a frequent feature of classroom interactions.

For many children it may have been schooling but it certainly wasn’t education.

A friend of mine with an obvious disability was strapped on his very first day of school as a 5 year old and to this day has no idea why apart from the fact that the teacher took an instant dislike to him. He was a dismal failure at school but now is a solo-parent of two teenage boys and it’s a credit to many things but mostly to him that as his boys were growing up he put up signs in every room of his house “This is a no-smacking house!” and despite the wrong spelling it made a huge difference to his handling of his older boy who has serious autism.

Times have changed and for the most part school experiences for children have improved a great deal.

Seen in this context most people would say the allegations were small beer. Had Benson-Pope been straightforward last year then the public, in its generosity to those who admit their mistakes or front up to their foibles, would not buy the rubbish now being heaped on him by smug politicians.

Despite all this such has been the level of attack on Benson-Pope that this issue has dominated parliament since it opened. Likewise it has dominated the front pages of newspapers and the nightly television news for weeks. A visitor could well be filled with wonderment at the priorities and values of our community.

Most grating of all is the self-righteous mouthing of concern from politicians like Rodney Hide and Judith Collins. They express obsession with insensitivities to children 20 years ago but ignore the appalling reality of so many children’s lives in the real world of New Zealand today.

What has Rodney Hide to say about the 400 children who change schools every Monday morning in Manukau City? It’s called transience and is a product of poverty – the same poverty that policies espoused by him have created over the past 20 years.

What has Judith Collins got to say to the 175,000 children who will still be living in families below the poverty line even after Labour’s Working for Families package is finally implemented?

What has Gerry Brownlee to say to children in families where a breadwinner works 50 hours a week but can’t earn enough to keep his or her family above the poverty line?

In reality the issue for politicians has never been about what may have happened to children in Benson-Pope’s past. It’s like so much of what poses as political debate between Labour and National which in truth is a sideshow where creating perceptions about parties and politicians becomes much more important than the substance of what is happening.

This posturing replaces genuine political debate because the major economic and social policies of National and Labour are so similar as to be – for the most part – utterly indistinguishable. It would be a struggle to get a cigarette paper between them with Labour just as often found to the right of National as anywhere else.

Both main parties are increasingly arguing shades of grey which they try to convince us are black and white.

If the current debate has any positive impact it will be to remind us all just how sensitive and vulnerable our teenagers are – despite the bravado – and will remind us also how shallow and visionless are our main political parties.