Saturday, April 28, 2012

John Banks has some admirable qualities. I respect his courage and the way he rose above childhood circumstances that were, to say the least, unpromising. But I wonder whether he might ultimately be undone by the addiction to politics that we see in so many public figures who refuse to recognise when their time is up.

TV3’s Campbell Live last night made claims about Banks which, if true, could shatter whatever reputation he might have for political integrity. In a nutshell, Campbell Live alleged he did not disclose the source of generous donations from Auckland-based German internet tycoon Kim Dotcom at the time Banks was campaigning against Len Brown for the Auckland mayoralty. Even more damaging is the allegation that he asked for $50,000 from Dotcom to be split into two payments of $25,000 in an attempt to disguise the donor’s identity.

Campbell Live pointed out that while it’s not illegal to accept such donations, it’s a breach of electoral law to list them as anonymous – as happened in this case – when the identity of the donor is known. And John Campbell insisted: “The Dotcom camp is adamant Banks knew the money was from them.” Today’s New Zealand Herald strengthens the claims against Banks, quoting Dotcom himself on dates and details.

The Herald quotes Dotcom as saying last night: “John said, ‘Wait a minute’, [this was after Dotcom had offered the $50,000]. “It would be good if you could split it up into two payments of 25 [thousand dollars], then I don’t declare publicly who made it’.”

Banks was already under pressure before these latest claims for allegedly failing to disclose the source of a $15,000 donation from SkyCity. Such largesse from the casino operator would have been embarrassing because he has been a vocal opponent of gambling. (Len Brown received an equal amount from SkyCity and disclosed the donor.) That matter has now been handed to the police for investigation, as the Auckland electoral officer is obliged to do by law.

That the allegation relating to the SkyCity donation came from Labour MP Trevor Mallard, who can hardly claim to be the Mr Clean of politics, doesn’t diminish its potential to damage Banks. And that has serious implications for the National-led government, since – as the Herald reports – a conviction would place his Epsom seat at risk and therefore endanger the government’s tenuous majority.

Both Campbell Live and the Herald reported details that undermine previous statements from Banks playing down his relationship with Dotcom. Campbell Live showed video footage of him proposing a toast to Dotcom at the German’s birthday party and attending a New Year’s Eve waterfront party hosted by Dotcom, at which Banks and his wife were shown hugging their hosts.

One can only assume the video footage was supplied to Campbell Live by the Dotcom camp because, as the programme reported, Banks has kept his distance from Dotcom since the latter’s arrest on internet piracy-related charges. Dotcom might well feel his generosity to Banks hasn’t been reciprocated.

All this looks very bad for Banks, and it isn’t helped by the fact that he was strikingly vague, lame and evasive when John Campbell talked to him by phone (Banks wouldn’t appear on the programme). This was not the cocky, combative Banks we know from previous scrapes. He appeared to have suffered an almost total memory lapse when it came to recalling details of his contacts with Dotcom and the sources of the donations made to his mayoral campaign.

However you look at it, this is a worry. If he wasn’t being honest – well, he wasn’t being honest, and he deserves to be exposed; end of story. If, on the other hand, he genuinely couldn’t remember events that happened relatively recently, then one has to wonder about his mental acuity and question whether he’s fit for public office.

All this strikes me as rather tragic, and a vivid demonstration of the hazards that await politicians who linger too long on the public stage.

When Banks was defeated by Brown for the Auckland mayoralty, he should have read that as a signal that his time was up. But no, it seems he couldn’t contemplate a life where he wasn’t in the thick of things. At this point, Don Brash obligingly stepped forward and, in a spectacularly inept move, anointed Banks as ACT’s candidate in Epsom. In doing so he may well have sounded the party’s death sentence, since party loyalists rightly viewed Banks as a largely unreconstructed Muldoonist.

The scandal now enveloping Banks is highly unlikely to have arisen if he had not become the MP for Epsom, and therefore pivotal to the government. Had he quietly left politics no one would have had much interest in pursuing him. If Banks’ career finally comes to an ignoble end as a result of the current disclosures, it could be seen as poetic justice for a man who was pathetically desperate to cling to political power.

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