Jane Clifton: Anyone for Epsom?

by Jane Clifton / 12 May, 2012
The Prime Minister may struggle to rescue John Banks from this pratfall.
John Key was warned. If you can’t even have a cup of tea with a chap without World War III breaking out, making him part of your Government is nothing short of a formal application for trouble. Sure enough, trouble has arrived, and in its traditional Act Party form: a silly Bertie Wooster-type caper, only one in which Jeeves never turns up to sort everything out. We’ve seen it so many times before. Don Brash, Heather Roy, David Garrett and Rodney Hide all got themselves into the daffiest possible pickles, and all have ended up on permanent gardening leave.

The sole consolation of an Act scandal, as with any Wodehouse-ian narrative, is that there are plenty of laughs, and a colourful supporting cast. John Banks’s capers with on-remand internet millionaire Kim Dotcom in scenarios including a birthday party, a jolly fireworks display and a helicopter ride would give Gussie Fink-Nottle and his newts a run for their money for the sheer random novelty of story ingredients.

At the time of going to press, the affair had become stuck in the rut all such story arcs encounter. Opposition and media are baying for Banks’s suspension; Key is power-smirking and changing the subject to the torrent of major new policy announcements that are suddenly although surely not coincidentally flowing from the Beehive; and the whole affair has been placed in the lap of the police.

On past police investigations of political malfeasance claims, it will take 10,000 years to resolve. But things are not looking too crisp for Banks. Although so far supportive, Key has pointedly offered the rider that should send a river of battery acid through any Government MP’s veins: any minister who proves not to have been entirely straight with the PM on any matter will automatically get the sack.

Even allowing for Woosterish blundering on Banks’s part, the discrepancies between his and Dotcom’s account of their dealings are too great for comfort. Even the most trivial, Banks’s claim that he “couldn’t remember” choppering into Dotcom’s rented mega-mansion, suggests a degree of cognitive impairment that should immediately preclude Banks from being trusted with a ministerial warrant. (After such an experience, most of us would still be having scary dead-of-night flashbacks from the lurid Dotcom art collection.)

It’s time to dust off Helen Clark’s Allegations Swirl-o-Meter and stand Banks down. Key may not relish the possibility of an Epsom byelection if Banks takes the huff, but it’s a far better option than having the least valuable member of his executive continuing to attract the Government such odium and ridicule. At the very least, Banks has been profoundly stupid. As first the Mayor of Auckland and later a private citizen with live political ambitions, he should have been far more careful in his dealings with Dotcom.

It shouldn’t need spelling out yet again, but patently some MPs still haven’t got the hang of this stuff: a flamboyant millionaire with a free cheque-writing hand who wants a government to do something for him is a risky person with whom to socialise if you’re a politician of any kind. Look what happened when Winston Peters was insufficiently selfprotective in his dealings with Owen Glenn. Glenn wanted an honorary consul appointment, and Winston was Foreign Affairs Minister. Why Winston didn’t run screaming from the room is one of the great mysteries of our politics.

Having found oneself in proximity to such a moneybags, a politician should take active, well-documented and indeed frantic steps to avoid the possibility of the millionaire’s cheques coming within a bull’s roar of the party’s bank account, the politician’s bank account or even the bank account of the local dairy owner’s brother-in-law’s plumber. It’s not just about avoiding corruption, but also about avoiding how even innocent interactions can be made to look.

Perhaps Banks thought that if Winston could get away with that level of untidiness, managing a comeback even after a select committee censure, then what the heck? The problem is that Dotcom says he wrote two cheques, at Banks’s suggestion, so his $50,000 donation to Banks’s mayoral campaign could remain anonymous.

If true, this is beyond naughty of Banks. And although the issue is being investigated, if you ask the public who it has more faith in: a buccaneer with a zany, fun-loving persona fighting global authorities over his version of internet freedom, or an umpteenth-retread politician who only won his seat because of a quirk in the electoral system and whose party rated 0.0% in the last poll… suffice it to say, backbench anonymity beckons, and Key needs to bestow it quickly. At least the Government can thank its lucky stars these donations cannot be seen to have led to favourable treatment of Dotcom – which was Labour’s brow-mopping consolation during the Glenn affair.

Despite all the hyperbole that attends such fiascos, we don’t have a culture of corruption in our politics, and those with big chequebooks generally cannot donate, flatter or wheedle their way into special treatment. That’s what makes the SkyCity pokie machines deal such a dreadful look, because – despite a very different context – this is one instance in which a cashed-up corporate has won special treatment. That’s a whole other story, but that Banks is also being investigated for a donation from SkyCity did spark a nice flight of fancy from Labour’s Trevor Mallard, who suggested that Act’s special deal on charter schools could be accommodated by setting up a charter school inside the SkyCity casino, thus obviating the difficulties of problem gamblers having to leave their children in the carpark while they squander the grocery money.

The affair also underlines – as if it needed underlining – the inanity of National’s deal with Act. (Or “Act” as we should perhaps now call it, as it’s now only present in our politics the way a Banquo was present during the Macbeth administration.) Banks is a mere Associate Education Minister responsible for two as-yet-non-existent charter schools, and the Minister for Small Business, with a couple of other nothing-much delegations, all outside Cabinet. He could hardly be more expendable. We may be in a Parliament in which, on brute numbers, the Government is sometimes down to a one-vote majority. But on balance, you’d have to conclude that for the past several years, National’s dealings with Act have been way more nightmare than benefit.

It hasn’t done Act much good, either: Brash has gone from a global monetary pin-up boy to the status of local laughing stock; Rodney has just declared himself an anarchist, and says he will be swinging a shovel as a builder’s labourer for the foreseeable future. Now all that’s meaningfully left of the National-Act relationship is the colosseum roar of the media and the Opposition, not unlike the dreadful knee-jellying scenario PG Wodehouse so often described: “Aunt bellowing to aunt like mastodons across the primeval swamp.” As one of those bellowing “aunts”, yet again witnessing a politician behave with the most gobsmacking idiocy, I can do no better than paraphrase Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia: “The modern [politician] is a congenital idiot and wants a nurse to lead him by the hand and some strong attendant to kick him regularly at intervals of a quarter of an hour.”

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