Splitting hairs over ethics and legality not a good look for PM

There is the letter of the law, there is the spirit of the law and there is intent. Like the Prime Minister, I'm no lawyer but it seems to me most ordinary people do not have a high opinion those who behave with questionable intent to flout the spirit of the law, yet whose actions might not contravene the actual letter of it.

At best this is "sharp practice". The legality of the John Banks mayoral campaign funding matter will be looked into by the police. But in that other tribunal, the court of public opinion, his case does not look promising. Here is why.

Before his campaign for the mayoralty of Auckland's super city in 2010, John Banks sought funding in the form of donations from several sources. There is nothing wrong with this. Political campaigns are largely funded by donations from supporters who feel the candidate they support might be sympathetic to their own interests.

But the Act requires that candidates sign a declaration. It also stipulates that if the candidate knows who a donation of more than $1000 comes from, that must also be declared. In the event, Mr Banks declared funds of $950,000 of which $520,000 was anonymous.

These requirements exist to imbue the electoral funding process with a degree of transparency and, with that transparency, the confidence of the public. The integrity of the system is thought to be of such importance that offences against it can be met with a term of imprisonment.

One of the people with whom Mr Banks associated before his campaign was Megaupload cyber-magnate Kim Dotcom. Mr Dotcom, until recently a guest of Her Majesty, is at present fighting extradition proceedings initiated by the United States where he is accused of online piracy.

That is largely irrelevant to Mr Banks' present predicament. But the Act New Zealand leader and Minister for Regulatory Reform, Minister for Small Business, Associate Minister of Education and Associate Minister of Commerce, might now be wishing he had not consorted with Mr Dotcom.

And that having done so he was completely open about it.

Mr Banks has been coy about this association. He says he was unaware Mr Dotcom had donated money to his campaign. He insists he has complied with the Local Government Act. He has acted according to the letter of the law.

According to Mr Dotcom - as told to the New Zealand Herald - the pair met on at least four occasions: in April 2010 for two hours after which Mr Dotcom emailed Mr Banks to thank him for his offer to help him with his residency application; in June 2010 at the Coatesville mansion which Mr Dotcom was seeking Overseas Investment Office permission to buy, a cause which Mr Banks took up on his behalf with Minister of Land Information Maurice Williamson; on New Year's Eve 2010 at a $500,000 fireworks display put on by Mr Dotcom; and a few weeks later at Mr Dotcom's birthday party at which Mr Banks apparently proposed a toast.

It was at the June meeting, says Mr Dotcom, that the question of campaign funding came up. Mr Banks' electoral funding return shows two cheques for $25,000 each signed by Mr Dotcom on sequential cheque numbers from the same chequebook, both dated June 9, 2010.

As Mr Dotcom notes, why would you write two separate $25,000 cheques instead of one $50,000 cheque unless you had been specifically asked to do so?

Watching Mr Banks on TV One's Q+A programme on Sunday being grilled by Paul Holmes on his knowledge or otherwise of the donations and seeing his pitiable attempts to avoid answering the questions was pathetic.

Equally mind-boggling is his apparent memory loss as to taking a helicopter ride to the Dotcoms' mansion. Is that really credible?

Mr Banks is being economical with the truth. He is dancing on the very fine head of a bent pin - with the Prime Minister in his arms. The fuss over "tea-gate" has barely dissipated and John Key finds himself once again partnering Mr Banks.

Asked by the Herald if he was happy for ministers to act unethically as long as they complied with the law, Mr Key said: "There is quite a wide definition of ethics ... The test I have to apply is the law."

An adequate answer in the witness box before a judge, perhaps, but in the court of public opinion?

I remain to be convinced.

- Simon Cunliffe is a Wellington writer.


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