All set for a bumpy ride on Planet Key

Did Dirty Harry ride into town and find his way to the ninth floor of the Beehive?

How else to explain the prime minister's mix of insouciance and squinty-eyed bravado - I don't run from no-one, punk - over the two issues vexing him most these days, water and John Banks?

Unless it is the siren call of Planet Key, of which the prime minister has been waxing lyrical lately. Planet Key, by the prime minister's account, seems like a very nice place - a green nirvana, where people hardly ever have to work, they just play golf.

Admittedly this Planet Key was initially a Green Party invention, a twist on National's Planet Labour motif. But it was Mr Key who instilled it with its utopian qualities. And it bears an uncanny resemblance to the planet he lived on for a few years between making his mega millions and pursuing his political ambitions.

In that life he was retired at the age of 40, having fulfilled the rags to riches dream, and spent a lot of time polishing up his golf handicap.

It is quite possible Mr Key has been fantasising in fairly serious fashion of late about the day he finally returns there. In which case, it is tempting to see that as the explanation behind the carelessness with which he increasingly shrugs off questions that are clearly sent to try him.

These broadly fall into two camps - the Waitangi Tribunal finding that Maori have proprietary rights over water, and John Banks, or more precisely, the police report that damns Mr Banks in numerous ways, but which Mr Key refuses to read.

On the first count, Mr Key is on fairly safe ground, waving away demands for more meaningful consultation with Maori over water than the Government is currently engaged in. National has been playing to the public galleries ever since the issue of Maori rights and interests over water first reared their head. It goes without saying that it has not done their electoral cause any harm.

That - and the fact that it is never a good look for prime ministers to reveal that they are screaming on the inside - explains the lack of any real attempt to explain away the consultation period as anything other than a legal nuisance before the Government pushes ahead with its power company sell-offs.

At the same time, of course, National has been careful to accelerate the pace of Treaty settlements, including a surprisingly radical deal with Tuhoe over the future ownership of Te Urewera National Park.

The upshot of all this is that the fallout among Maoridom over water may not be as great as National's opponents might think. The message is loud and clear - roll up, roll up, National is open to doing business and any iwi which wants to deal now with the Crown might be pleasantly surprised.

In the meantime, Mr Key's minders will calculate that there is no harm done electorally by slapping down King Tuheitia over his claim that Maori own the water.

On the second count, Mr Key's logic-defying defence of Mr Banks over the Dotcom donation is harder to fathom. The line goes something like this: Mr Banks gave me his word that he didn't break the law, and the police report proves that because it found there was not enough evidence to charge him.

Of course, if Mr Key read the report he would also know that police believed the law was actually broken.

But it is not what happened when Mr Banks was running for the mayoralty that is at issue, it is what he said and did about those donations when he was confronted over them as a minister in the Key cabinet.

Reading the report would reveal to Mr Key that police also interviewed several upstanding citizens - a top lawyer, and a SkyCity executive - whose evidence at the very least undermines the air of injured innocence Mr Banks has maintained throughout.

Back in the day, this would have failed what Mr Key used to call "the smell test".

Helen Clark's defence of Taito Philip Field - recently out of jail - failed this test, though for months she stood on various technicalities to defend him. Her defence of Winston Peters over the Owen Glenn donation, and Mr Peters' broadcast denials, also failed the test. But even while defending her two ministers, she stood them down. Short of new information coming to light, the opportunity for Mr Key to stand Mr Banks down is long past, even if he had shown an inclination to do so.

Contrast that with the standards applied to his own party's ministers. Junior cabinet minister Richard Worth was sacked over transgressions that even now Mr Key has never fully explained. Ethnic affairs minister Pansy Wong went the same way over travel perk transgressions.

Before the sackings, both ministers had the ninth-floor apparatus crawling all over them and conducting a forensic examination that was so probing the Spanish inquisitors would have applauded. But barely a rock has been lifted for Mr Banks.

Of course, Mr Banks holds National's wafer-thin majority in his hands, but it is barely credible that he would go rogue on the Government if Mr Key sacks him. Mr Banks is a Nat through and through. He only stood for ACT in Epsom because he thought it would help National. The idea that he would wreak havoc from the back benches seems far fetched, though from the point of view of political management it certainly makes life easier for National and Mr Key to have Mr Banks inside the tent, rather than outside.

It is also not credible that National fears Mr Banks resigning and forcing a by-election. Admittedly, governments don't particularly like by-elections, which tend to be treated as a referendum on whoever occupies the Treasury benches. But any notion that this would be a negative for National is laughable. A dog wearing a blue ribbon would win Epsom for National. The country probably wouldn't even notice a by-election was on.

The more likely explanation, however, is that it's not worth National making the effort. From some accounts, Mr Banks has hardly enjoyed his time in Parliament and has no plan to stand again in 2014. That suggests an announcement some time next year that he is retiring.

The Opposition is already running out of steam over the affair. And Mr Banks' loyal friends within National - of whom he has many - will be urging Mr Key to allow him the dignity of leaving on his own terms.

There is no real reason not to. There is no electoral gain for Mr Key in acting against Mr Banks now, and come 2014, voters will be more interested in National's abandonment of another electoral deal in Epsom. It may not be perfect like life on Planet Key. But that's politics.

The Dominion Post