Editorial: Bad memory or poor judgment?

For someone with "nothing to hide" ACT leader and former Auckland mayor John Banks is doing an awfully good job of creating the impression there are some things he would rather keep to himself.

He has refused to confirm he solicited a donation from internet billionaire Kim Dotcom for his 2010 mayoral campaign and refused to confirm he asked that the $50,000 donation be split into two $25,000 payments.

He has also said he does not remember who donated money to his mayoral campaign, does not remember discussing money with Dotcom and his staff and, till yesterday, could not remember flying to Dotcom's Coatesville mansion in Dotcom's helicopter.

Either Mr Banks is suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer's or he thinks honest answers to the questions raised by the revelation that Dotcom was an undisclosed donor to his campaign will reflect poorly on him.

About the only thing Mr Banks can remember is that he did make a phone call to Dotcom a few days after two $25,000 cheques from the billionaire were deposited in his campaign account.

The purpose of the call was not, however, to thank him for the donations as alleged by Dotcom, but to thank him for putting $500,000 towards a New Year's Eve fireworks display that was to take place six months later.

Readers will draw their own conclusions about Mr Banks' memory. It seems peculiar that he can recall the subject matter of a single telephone conversation but forgot, for a time, a helicopter ride.

However, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, police investigating alleged breaches of the Local Electoral Act by Mr Banks may have no option but to take the Epsom MP at his word.

The Act is so flawed, according to legal commentator Graeme Edgeler, that it is possible for a local body election candidate to know a donor is planning to donate a particular sum, to tell the donor to send the money the following week, to receive a bank cheque for the promised amount in the week specified and to still list the donation as anonymous.

That, says Mr Edgeler, is because suspecting the identity of a donor and actually knowing it in terms of the Act are different things.

The question for John Key is whether he wishes to accept that as the standard for ministers in his Government. Mr Banks' defence is that he has complied with the letter of the law. He may have, but he has not complied with the spirit of an Act intended to promote transparency.

Mr Banks' evasions and verbal gymnastics are reminiscent of those employed by NZ First leader Winston Peters four years ago in an ultimately futile attempt to convince Parliament's privileges committee he did not know of a $100,000 contribution to his legal expenses by expatriate Kiwi billionaire Owen Glenn. Mr Key has reason to turn a blind eye to them.

Stripping Mr Banks of his ministerial portfolios could cost him a critical vote in Parliament. However, the prime minister should ponder the wisdom of allowing perceptions of his Government to be tainted by Mr Banks' behaviour.