Politics and smelling a rat

"The test", according to Prime Minister John Key, is whether he "can rely on" the word of Act leader John Banks. Of course, the test is also whether the country can - and should - rely on Mr Key's reliance of Mr Banks' word. And the word on that word, according to Labour Party deputy leader Grant Robertson, NZ First leader Winston Peter, Green Party co-leader Metiria Turia, Megaupload millionaire Kim Dotcom - and many other New Zealanders - is a resounding "no".

Opposition parties have renewed their calls for Mr Key to sack Mr Banks in light of police documents, revealed last week, which show Mr Dotcom told police Mr Banks had asked him to split into two his $50,000 donation for his (failed) 2010 Auckland mayoral campaign so he would not have to declare the source. A $15,000 donation from SkyCity was also recorded as anonymous. The police found Mr Banks had filed a false election return but had not done so deliberately, because he did not read it before signing it. As the time limit for filing a false return had expired, no prosecution could be made.

Mr Robertson said the police finding was enough to raise doubts about Mr Banks' assurances in the media and to Mr Key that he had acted legally, and evidence from Mr Dotcom and his lawyer indicated Mr Banks had misled the Prime Minister in May when he said he had not known about the donation. Mr Key is supporting Mr Banks, the MP for Epsom and Minister for Small Business, saying he had "given me an assurance that he met the law". Mr Banks said police had weighed up all the evidence, not pressed charges and he was now "moving on".

But whether he, or the Prime Minister, will be allowed to move on seems unlikely, particularly while Opposition parties and much of the country continue to smell a rat, while the truth and untruths of what has been said and done seem increasingly murky - and while the Prime Minister continues to refuse to read the police report.

Mr Banks' "word" has been questioned before. In January, he told media he hardly knew Mr Dotcom, who faces possible extradition to the US on charges of criminal copyright violation, and could not recall certain meetings, which included attending Mr Dotcom's birthday party and other visits to his mansion and being flown in his helicopter. He also enjoyed his hospitality on a Hong Kong holiday.

Mr Dotcom said, after attending Question Time in Parliament this week, the denial of their relationship was "not what friends do".

But that is not the only "friendship" being tested. The Prime Minister needs Mr Banks to help maintain National's fragile majority in Government - a relationship cemented over that now infamous cup of tea in a Newmarket cafe just before the November 2011 general election. But Mr Dotcom doubtless voiced the feelings of many New Zealanders when he said: "I think the Prime Minister has had to make a choice: am I going to uphold ethical standards, or do I want to remain in power?"

Mr Key is not the first prime minister to be faced with that choice. But he is so far sticking firmly to his guns on the issue, accusing Labour of launching a "politically motivated" attack on the Government. He said under the Local Electoral Act it was legal to solicit donations and declare them anonymous, and said many MPs would have done the same.

But the incident has prompted proposed changes to that Act, which will cap anonymous donations to local election candidates at $1500.

So it appears the public's concern about transparency and accountability in donations has been heeded. But in terms of Mr Banks, and the Prime Minister's support of him, it seems the accusations, denials, ducking and diving and semantics will continue until someone - all that remains to be seen is who - gives in.

Mr Dotcom said Mr Banks had not been honest but the matter should now be "left to rest". But he also said - quite rightly - leadership that did not uphold high ethical standards raised doubts: "I would worry what else is lingering in the dark that I don't know about, and as a voter I would certainly consider who to give my vote to next election." To avoid such doubts and clear the air, the Prime Minister should stop playing politics, and send Mr Banks to the back benches.


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