OPINION: If John Banks wants to do the right thing by John Key he would resign now. The increasingly farcical alternatives give him no other choice.
The more ludicrous scenario would see Parliament having to be recalled after it has risen for the election just to hold a vote to avoid triggering a by-election in Banks’ Epsom seat. That seems to be one outcome of the High Court decision this week delaying a conviction against Banks till August 1, the day after Parliament rises.
Even more disastrous for National would be the ignominy of Banks being sentenced to home detention just a day after walking out of Parliament as a member of John Key’s government.
Both those scenarios would be avoided if Banks’ legal team succeed in getting him discharged without conviction on the charge of filing a false electoral return. His other recourse would be to lodge an appeal, which would also spare the Government embarrassment.
But National must surely be weighing up the risks and wondering if they are worth it. There is nothing it can do to force the ACT MP’s hand. But Banks is more loyal to the National Party cause than any of its current back bench. If Key asked, he would fall on his sword. His only motivation in returning to Parliament as an ACT MP was to ensure National had a viable coalition ally. And resigning now would only bring forward his planned retirement by two months.
Resigning now would also give ACT some clear air before the start of the election campaign – space which it desperately needs if it is to have any chance of National extending it another lifeline in Epsom.
The ACT brand is already toxic enough that National must wonder if the collateral damage would be too great.
That brand will only become more toxic after the sight of Banks toughing it out for the final weeks of National’s second term. But for the judge delaying a conviction till August 1, Banks would have lost his seat this week – the first MP in more than a century to be found guilty of an offence serious enough to kick him out of Parliament.
The fallout goes wider than National. Public confidence is also at stake.
Banks’ supporters might argue he was only behaving as any politician does after the High Court found him guilty of filing a false return. But the fact that all your mates do it is rarely considered a suitable legal defence.
If the Banks verdict had happened in a vacuum the political damage might have been minimal. But set Thursday’s High Court verdict against the backdrop of ongoing questions surrounding politicians and big money and it helps feed a perception of a nod and a wink political culture. That in turn threatens to corrode faith in our system as essentially corruption free, given other recent events.
It doesn’t help that evidence given to the court about Banks accepting cheques in plain envelopes feeds into all the popular stereotypes about politicians and money.
Banks’ offence occurred when he was a local body politician, not a Member of Parliament. But whether it is local body or national politics, many of the questions it raises are the same. Politicians have devised a plethora of defences against the charge that money buys influence. They put mechanisms in place to ensure the party leadership has plausible deniability when it comes to anonymous donations.
But few people would find it credible that politicians are blissfully ignorant of who their biggest and wealthiest backers might be, no matter what method is used to funnel their donations into the party coffers. Nor would most people struggle with the idea that someone who pays $5000 to sit next to the prime minister or a party leader at dinner is motivated by the opportunity to have a word in his ear.
That is only a problem if the perception that money buys policy and special favours takes root.
Despite the verdict, the Banks case was at least reassuring on that score.
The court heard that Banks lobbied the land information minister of the time Maurice Williamson over Dotcom’s bid to buy the Coatesville mansion where he lives, but that application was turned down.
Williamson has since resigned after it emerged he phoned police about their investigation into a wealthy National Party donor.
Dotcom’s $50,000 donation did not buy him special favours when he landed in Mt Eden prison either; when Banks was asked to intervene he refused and suggested it might backfire on Dotcom ‘‘if it becomes known about the election support’’. No doubt Banks was thinking more about his own reputation than Dotcom’s but clearly there was no sense of him feeling beholden to the big German. But Banks’ obfuscation in the face of ongoing questions about donations to his mayoral campaign did not do Banks or John Key any favours.
Key stuck by Banks regardless.
Banks might consider whether it is time to repay the favour.