Claire Trevett 's Opinion

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Easy laughs from Banks' dilemma

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John Banks is a helicopter pilot who says he can't remember any visits to Dotcom's mansion. Photo / APN
John Banks is a helicopter pilot who says he can't remember any visits to Dotcom's mansion. Photo / APN

Watching Act's leader, John Banks, wriggling over what he did and did not know about 2010 donations from SkyCity and Kim Dotcom is like watching an episode of Hogan's Heroes with Banks starring as Sergeant Schultz crying, "I saw nothing! NOTHING!"

Banks is an easy target and his eccentricities - thrown into glorious Technicolor by the stress of the occasion - only serve to enlarge the bullseye.

There was Banks' radio interview in which he appeared to repeatedly misunderstand a question and denied being at SkyCity with Dotcom or having a relationship with Dotcom, who, he said, has a wife. There was Dotcom's bank statement, which showed the two $25,000 donations and that he had visited a tofu shop and shopped at Plastic Box, whose slogan of "Get it sorted" Banks may well want to use as his new motto.

There has also - fittingly for an Auckland-based drama - been an emphasis on modes of transport.

Kim Dotcom claimed a helicopter once took John Banks out to his mansion. But Banks claimed not to remember any helicopter and accused his accusers of thinking he had instead travelled up the river by cabbage boat.

As if it further illuminated matters, he added he could fly a helicopter himself. This could perhaps explain why he couldn't remember the trip, because he had travelled on so many and after a while they all started to blend into one - so many helicopters, so many mansions, so many donations.

Faced with such situations, MPs tend to take one of two options: front up or shut up.

Banks varied between the two. In the beginning, he made the mistake of trying to deploy them simultaneously. He opted for shut up but then couldn't bring himself to shut up about his intention of shutting up. So instead he fronted up, only to duck questions and plead amnesia.

On Tuesday, Banks broke from shutting up to front up. He denied knowing about Dotcom's donation and denied ringing him to thank him for the donation that he had not known about. He said he had legal advice not to comment, advice he wished he hadn't taken because it now appeared he had "obfuscated". He has now shut up again, this time apparently more successfully.

It is fashionable to pillory MPs in such situations. But it is possible to have some sympathy for Banks.

The SkyCity donation and the lack of disclosure on Banks' return was known way back in December 2010 - two days after the returns were filed when SkyCity confirmed to the Herald it had given to both Banks and the man who became mayor, Len Brown.

Brown, who disclosed the donation, copped some flak for it, given his anti-pokies advocacy. Yet nobody saw fit to make a real issue of Banks' failure to disclose until two years later, when Banks was an Act MP and it became politically advantageous to do so.

The donations would have been titillating at the time and became controversial only in retrospect and largely because of matters outside Banks' control.

There was the small matter of Dotcom's arrest and the small matter of the Government negotiations with SkyCity for a convention centre which would rely on Banks' vote to pass legislation to enable it to have more poker machines.

At the time of the donations, Banks thought he would be mayor of the new Auckland Super City. The chance he would instead be the Act Party leader with a National Government relying on him to pass that legislation would have seemed ludicrous. Two years later, Banks is being held to the standards set out in the law for members of Parliament rather than the law for local body politicians.

Banks took in $520,086 in anonymous donations that year. But Brown, who beat him, also used measures available to local candidates that parliamentary candidates do not enjoy. His return included $499,000 from a trust set up to take donations without revealing the donors.

At the time, Brown's campaign manager used the very same Sergeant Schultz defences Banks is now using: that it was allowed under the law and that Len Brown was kept deliberately blind on the matter of donations. Brown's campaign team had handled all the fundraising to ensure the mayor had no knowledge of who donated - to protect Brown from any possibility of influence.

The difference in Banks' case is the big question mark about whether he did in fact know about the Dotcom donation. In terms of hard evidence, so far nothing has emerged to prove that Banks did know for sure that the $50,000 that appeared in his campaign account was from Dotcom.

The bank statement Dotcom released as proof of his two donations confirmed he had donated - but not that they were identifiable when they reached the other end. The phone call is yet to be proven and is denied by Banks. It is one thing to assume a donation is linked to the nod and wink of a previous promise, but another to state in a legal document that it is so without proof.

There is some good to come out of the situation. Onlookers have been variously appalled and entertained. And it is inevitable that the local body laws will be tightened. It is no excuse, but what is also forgotten is that Banks missed the revolution that swept through donation disclosure rules after 2005. He is of a generation of politicians whose default setting was to treat donations as anonymous, oblivious to the reality that a hidden "clean" donation can actually look dodgier than an openly disclosed dodgy donation.

NZ First leader Winston Peters learned this the hard way. In a photo of Banks with Peters on a plane this week, Banks had his headphones firmly clamped to his head, an embodiment of the "hear no evil" character he has cast himself as. Next time, Banks might want to take off those headphones. He could do worse than listen to advice Peters might volunteer about the fix he's in.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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