OPINION: Few MPs had more cause to welcome the end of 2013 than Act leader John Banks. It was a disastrous year for the Epsom MP, whose return to national politics has been dogged by controversy.
But while most politicians can draw a line under a bad year and look forward to better fortune in the 12 months to come, 2014 does not promise to be any easier for Mr Banks.
In May, he will be tried in the High Court at Auckland on three charges of knowingly filing a false electoral return relating to his failed 2010 bid to regain the Auckland mayoralty.
The charges relate to two donations of $25,000 each from internet tycoon Kim Dotcom and one of $15,000 from SkyCity. All three were listed as anonymous on Mr Banks' return of donations and he is accused of knowingly making a false declaration.
He insists the error occurred because he did not read the declaration before he signed it, instead relying on assurances from his campaign treasurer that everything was in order.
What started as a private prosecution brought by retired Wellington accountant Graham McCready, after police declined to charge him, was taken over by the solicitor-general when the District Court ruled the case should proceed. Mr Banks' legal team made a further application to have the case thrown out, but the High Court upheld the earlier decision and transferred it to its jurisdiction because of the public- interest issues involved.
As a former Cabinet minister, an MP with more than three decades in Parliament and a past mayor of New Zealand's largest city, Mr Banks could recite chapter and verse the procedure for making the laws of the land. However, he showed himself to be a complete stranger to the way they are administered when he appeared in the High Court at Auckland on December 11 to answer the charges.
When his name was called, he remained in the public gallery, apparently failing to appreciate he had to stand in the dock. There was no more telling sign of the alien environment the former police minister had found himself in.
Whatever Mr Banks' fate when he goes on trial in May, the case has sunk his political career. He resigned his ministerial portfolios after the District Court ruled the case could proceed, and after the High Court backed that decision, he announced he would step down as Act leader in March and that he would not stand for re-election as the MP for Epsom.
In an emotional statement after his December 11 appearance, he invoked the memory of seeing his parents jailed for lengthy terms when he was a teenager 50 years ago, saying it had a profound effect on how he had lived his adult life.
"Half a century ago on a wet Friday afternoon, I witnessed my mother and father get sentenced to very long terms of prison and taken away," he said, struggling to hold back tears. "I stood outside the High Court as a 17-year-old absolutely committed to a lifetime of hard work, honest endeavour and public service to try and balance the family ledger."
If he is acquitted in May, he will at least be able to make a planned withdrawal from public life. If he is found guilty, however, he will be subject to the rule which requires MPs to vacate their seats if convicted of a crime with a maximum sentence of two years or more imprisonment, regardless of the sentence actually handed down. Instead of being able to leave national politics with a modicum of dignity, Mr Banks could find himself being drummed out of Parliament.
He has insisted since the allegations about the donations first surfaced last year that he has "nothing to hide and nothing to fear".
However, despite acknowledging his political career is over either way, he still has something to lose.
- © Fairfax NZ News