David Benson-Pope resigns

GONE: David Benson-Pope resigned from Cabinet this morning in the wake of the Madeline Setchell affair.
KEVIN STENT / Sunday Star Times
GONE: David Benson-Pope resigned from Cabinet this morning in the wake of the Madeline Setchell affair.

Prime Minister Helen Clark has not ruled out the possibility of David Benson-Pope returning as a Cabinet Minister in the future.

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Benson-Pope resigned from Cabinet today after being found to have misled the public.

The axe has been hovering over Benson-Pope since yesterday afternoon when he admitted telling Environment Ministry head Hugh Logan that he doubted he could work with the ministry's newly appointed communications adviser Madeleine Setchell, because her partner was National leader John Key's chief press secretary.

That contradicted earlier statements that he did not know any of the details of the issue.

He has also given a clear impression to media - and to Clark - that he did not apply pressure on Logan.

The Prime Minister did not dismiss the possibility of Benson-Pope returning to Cabinet at some time.

She said people "have been known to work their way back" after such incidents - referring to Ruth Dyson who returned months after resigning for drink driving, and Lianne Dalziel who was similarly forced out for providing misleading answers to reporters, but returned and is a sitting minister.

"But in general with our cabinets they are elected by their peers and their peers take a close look at who's best qualified."

National Party leader John Key said Miss Clark had been too slow to act.

She had known about his "free and frank" comments since Wednesday night, but only moved against the Minister once the pressure came on.

Steve Maharey and David Parker have been named as the ministers who will take over Benson-Pope's portfolios.

Clark said the appointments were temporary and effective as from today.

Permanent replacements would be considered in the "fullness of time", she said.

Maharey takes over as Social Development Minister and Parker the Environment Minister.

At a press conference this morning, Clark said: "The way in which certain issues have been handled this week has led to a loss of credibility and on that basis I have accepted Mr Benson-Pope's offer to stand aside."

Clark said Benson-Pope had been a capable and hardworking minister and she regretted this had happened.

"Issues this week, however, leave no alternative."

She had not spoken to Mr Benson-Pope herself today but her chief of staff and a senior minister had spoken to him last night and made it clear he was expected to resign.

Clark said there was a standard expected for government ministers.

When she had compared answers Benson-Pope had given in Parliament with answers to questions put by the media on Monday, she realised the situation could not be sustained.

Clark said she was disappointed as she expected people to put the full facts out there.

Benson-Pope said it was with regret that he tendered his resignation.

He maintained that he had not done anything "inappropriate" in the Setchell case but said he did not want the "sideshow" to detract from the Government's successes.

"While I do not believe I did anything inappropriate in relation to the employment issue at the centre of recent media attention, I do not want this controversy to divert attention from the huge success of this government. People will make their own judgment of my actions and it is right that they should," he said.

The controversy had taken a toll on his family.

"I have had more than my fair share of personal abuse and attack from the Opposition, their fellow travellers and parts of the media," he said.

He would stay on as a backbench MP, spend more time in his Dunedin South electorate and work to ensure the Government was returned to power at the next election, he said.

At a joint press conference between Logan and Deputy State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie at midday today, Logan admitted that he kept back from the State Services Commission Benson-Pope's comments to him - something he said he regretted.

Rennie expressed his annoyance at the omission. "In hindsight it would have been desirable for this to be made clear to me before this week."

Logan stood by his decision to effectively sack Ms Setchell.

He said even if Mr Benson-Pope had said he could have happily worked with her, the outcome probably would have been the same.

However, his own future looks shaky with Mr Rennie unable to express full confidence in him till he had completed an investigation and report into the controversy.

- With Kim Ruscoe and NZPA

The Dominion Post