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

Claire Trevett: Key the ostrich has head firmly buried in sand

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It seems Prime Minister John Key has put in a late entry for Forest and Bird's annual "Bird of the Year" contest - the ostrich. Key's entry is in apparent breach of the rules, which require the bird to at least be a resident of New Zealand.

However, Key has pleaded his bird's case, showing evidence that there are at least two ostriches in New Zealand: him and Act leader John Banks.

Banks turned into an ostrich during the Auckland Super City mayoral campaign in 2010 when the likes of Kim Dotcom and SkyCity donated to his campaign without his noticing.

Key's transmogrification to an ostrich is more recent and comes and goes: he buries his head determinedly in the sand whenever the cue words "John Banks" are mentioned.

Key has set out a "test" for Banks to meet if he is to continue to bask in the warmth of Key's confidence after a rather damning police report which cast aspersions on Banks' claims he knew nothing about those two donations.

That test is that Banks must not have misled him over those donations. Key has also given Banks a guarantee that he will never fail that test because Key is determinedly refusing to look at anything or ask questions of anyone who might prove that Banks did mislead him.

Here a spoiler alert is needed: should the Prime Minister be reading, he might wish to look away now, or skip to the penultimate paragraph lest he inadvertently see some forensic analysis.

Much of the attention has focused on the Dotcom donation, but it is the evidence about the SkyCity donation that is the more damning. Banks' critics have conveniently ignored evidence that show Dotcom was happy to go along with making his donation anonymous and, in fact, went to some lengths to ensure it could not be traced back. Technically, that donation was anonymous until Dotcom - who also admitted he was disgruntled by Banks' refusal to help him out in prison - got utu by blurting about it this year.

But in SkyCity's case, Banks personally went into SkyCity's offices where a SkyCity cheque in a SkyCity envelope was handed to him by SkyCity chief executive Nigel Morrison. In return, SkyCity was later sent a receipt for the donation. Morrison told police that it was made clear to Banks and Len Brown (his main rival) that the donations were from SkyCity and were not intended to be anonymous.

Banks might not have opened that envelope, but it is hard to believe he did not know it was a donation, and did not wonder where it had gone to when he signed off on the donations return.

While Dotcom might be motivated to give evidence against Banks, SkyCity's CEO has no such motivation. In fact, it would be counter-productive given the reliance on Banks' vote to get a national convention centre.

Key has argued it is not his job to conduct a forensic examination into such matters. Instead, he has brushed off the debacle as unworthy of his attention because it is politically motivated.

That may be true - but Key's defence of Banks is also politically motivated.

Having withdrawn all his own credit from the ATM of credibility, Banks is now relying on Key's. The reason Key has given Banks his pin number is that the PM's eye is on the bigger picture, just as it was with that rather demeaning cup of tea: stability of Government. If sacked, Banks might be docile from the back benches, but it is also possible he would not be. That would endanger a significant portion of the Government's plans, not least of which are its economic plans. Key has gauged that the public interest of maintaining the pre-set course on that front is of greater consequence than losing a bit of self-respect by defending Banks.

Key is now finding out what it was like to wear Helen Clark's shoes when she was Prime Minister in 2008, when her coalition partner Winston Peters was in similar strife over undisclosed donations. Then Key was her interrogator, demanding she ask more questions of the man he called "Labour's sugar daddy", Owen Glenn. Now Key, too, is learning that hell hath no fury like a sugar daddy scorned.

What makes it harder for Key is that Clark had only to swallow back the bile and get Peters through a few months before the election performed its natural cleansing process and saw NZ First sent to the reserves bench for a term.

For Key, it is a much longer period of two years. He has sent an ominous sign to Act about that - warning media this week not to assume that National will endorse an Act candidate in Epsom in 2014.

It was in 2007 that Banks performed his magical self-proclaimed transmogrification to the mayor that cares and shares.

Five years later, Key must now be wishing he had the luxury of being able to transmogrify Banks again from an ostrich into a moa. The moa is also a large flightless bird with one key difference: it is extinct.

- NZ Herald

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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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