Government standing by John Banks despite Kim Dotcom allegations

by Jane Clifton / 29 September, 2012
The Govt has little chance of losing an Epsom byelection, so why is it standing by the increasingly besieged John Banks?
Sherlock Key cartoon by Chris Slane

Sometimes in politics, it is all about you. The trick is to realise that this is not always a good thing. When it comes to the mayoral donations debacle, John Banks is now under the remarkable impression that he’s the victim and even possibly the hero, rather than the perpetrator.

It’s a wonder he managed to prevent his arm from smiting his brow as he gave the astonishing quote “No one should have to go through what I had to go through!” That he is actually claiming credit for righteous reform of the electoral laws is a triumph of vanity over cognition. Anyone under any illusions about the potential breadth of male vanity need only ponder the conviction of diminutive actor Tom Cruise that he is the man to play fictional hero Jack Reacher (you could melt down three Toms and even that wouldn’t be enough to reconstitute a full Jack; we can only hope Weta Workshop can reverse its hobbit-and dwarf-making technology). The scale of Banks’s delusions is now Cruise-ian, and John Key has taken the curious option of pretending to share them.

Despite his bravado this week about life on “Planet Key”, the Prime Minister cannot possibly believe Banks “forgot” the “anonymous” donations from Kim Dotcom – any more than his choppered-in visit to the fun king’s lurid version of Versailles in Coatesville slipped his mind. Key may have wisely decided that Dotcom, who has remorselessly charmed New Zealanders since his indictment by the US Government, is not to be taken at face value and has played the hapless Banks for a patsy. And – no show without Punch – Dotcom himself loomed up in Parliament like a novelty barrage balloon this week, watching Key’s glib evasions from the gallery as delightedly as if the House were a comedy club.

Publicity stunt? Talk about a coalition of the willing. Although Labour MPs were not visible as the Dotcom entourage just happened to pop in to see Question Time – to be greeted by avid but certainly unsurprised media hordes – I could almost swear several Opposition members were hiding behind the big guy, rubbing their hands with glee as he wafted through the corridors of power. He’s a massive unit who could have sheltered half the Opposition caucus in his lee – no Boag-esque hiding behind a marble pillar for him. But he moved serenely as if on castors, seeming to know in advance exactly where to go, whom to see and how to walk past the main media lurking-points.

Fascinatingly, although there is no rule to prevent Dotcom from stopping in Parliament’s foyer – which serves as a daily catch-and-release chamber for media stand-up interviews with passing MPs – when his security guard escort told him to keep moving and ignore media entreaties, he complied immediately. Great swashbuckling pirate of cyberspace he may be, but he is also German, and a man in uniform issuing instructions is, as in the clichés, a sort of Teutonic sound-of-the-sea. Banks, who the previous day was positively sunbathing in the blaze of Key’s vigorous defence, appeared to have had another unfortunate memory outage. He “forgot” to come to that day’s Question Time. Pity. Someone could have pointed the forgotten Dotcom out to him, and they could have had a nice cup of tea.


None of these shenanigans did anything but underline that no one has ever rated higher on the trusty old Helen Clark Swirl-O-Meter than Banks. As Helen always used to say when a minister reached a point where “allegations are swirling around him”, it’s time to “Move On”. So why is Key, as one tweeter had it, sticking his fingers in his ears and going “la la la la la!”, refusing even to read the police report? This makes it plain the law was breached on at least one count. The police could not prosecute for technical reasons and because, as we know from almost every other electoral complaint ever laid, they would rather let Trelise Cooper redesign their uniforms and livery than get involved in political dogfights.

Other politicians in a tenth this much odium have had the good sense and humility to go gracefully – and there’s the cringeworthy example of Chris Carter as the one who waited to be pushed to deter those minded to tough it out. But not Banks. No one will confirm this, but it seems reasonable to suppose the Epsom MP has threatened to flounce off if he loses his ministerial jobs. The distraction of a byelection is the only possible reason Key can have for keeping him on – but it’s not a good reason because it’s not a big risk. Epsom is one of the most centre-right-leaning seats in the country, with a history of voting strategically to safeguard National’s coalition chances.

The filleting effect of protest voting – normally a big byelection hazard – is not a danger here. Act is all but moribund, the Conservative Party’s support is puny and even voters minded to give the Government a fright would hesitate to vote Labour while it is still behaving like a sackful of cats. Epsom is not, aside from an ostentatious leafiness, even faintly Green. Sure, there would be a stressful six-week interregnum during which, if the Opposition moved no confidence and the Maori Party crossed the floor, the Government could fall, lacking Banks’s vote. But even if the Maori MPs crossed – and it would be a case of a triple out-of-body experience if they did – the House would be split 60-60 and a no-confidence vote can only succeed by a majority. Not fun, but survivable.


Yes, a byelection would be a pain, but not half as big a one as having Banks stay on in his noisome albatross capacity. He has now sunk below laughing-stock territory, and his continued ministerial status is an incitement – including to back- and middle-bench foment. Already stirred up by Tau Henare’s underdog campaign to be Speaker, a few other perennially overlooked Nats are having an attack of Why-Not-Me?-Itis. Seeing the vaultingly undeserving Banks getting preferential treatment will bring them to a rolling boil. But even this is no big deal. None are going to make serious trouble, because they, too, want Key’s patronage. At least they know Key is not, beneath his larky exterior, genuinely relaxed about Banks – a coalition add-on he never personally welcomed to begin with, even before the tea party fiasco. Key has a well-remarked poker “tell” of drawing sharp hissing breaths through his teeth when asked a tricky question, and the increasing vigour of this “suck it up” reflex must by now be of concern to his dentist.

So again, why, why, why not just sack him and make it all go away? Well, at the bottom of all this nonsense is probably a serious case of the Die Hard Bruce Willises. When trouble comes its way, the Government has learnt that a carefree “Yippee ki-yay!” will generally see it off without more than a slight wobble in popularity. This feeling of bulletproofness has been reaffirmed repeatedly in steady polling by Colmar Brunton, Digi-Poll and Roy Morgan, in the teeth of anything the commentariat or Opposition might say. So National has decided it can brazen out even this fiasco. Still, it’s salutary to wonder if any other country’s parliament and prime minister have served as an afternoon of fun and finger-pointing for an on-remand prisoner with time on his hands and a genius for publicity.
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