John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Backing Banks each way could be a loser

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John Banks. Photo / Getty Images
John Banks. Photo / Getty Images

The Prime Minister is guilty of trying to have it both ways. He claims to be raising the bar when it comes to ministerial standards. Meanwhile, John Key's reluctance to do anything that might put his Government's wafer-thin majority in jeopardy has resulted in John Banks making a mockery of that claim by being allowed to limbo-dance his way right under that supposedly heightened barrier without so much as a prime ministerial word of reproach.

Key says he is never going to sack a minister for not breaking the law. He says he has a "categorical" assurance from Banks that he has not broken the law. Banks thus retains the Prime Minister's confidence. End of story.

Well, not quite. It would be difficult to come up with a more minimalist approach to upholding ministerial ethics. Key is taking a "see no evil, hear no evil" thus "speak no evil" stance.

Banks' assurance is Key's insurance, however. If the police find the Act leader does have a case to answer in terms of what he knew about the Dotcom and SkyCity donations to his Auckland mayoralty campaign in 2010, then Key has an out.

He can say he accepted Banks' word. If that trust proves to have been breached, he can then say that has left him no choice but to sack Banks.

However, last night's revelation that Banks lobbied Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson on Kim Dotcom's behalf regarding the sale of sensitive land to the foreigner shows the danger of not standing Banks down now. What else lurks in the undergrowth to prompt further accusations by the Opposition of National Party cronyism?

Such a "I won't sack him until I have to" position was the one that prime ministers took before Helen Clark's time in the job. Under her regime, there was less tolerance of ministerial misdemeanour. That was accompanied by a greater willingness to reinstate ministers after they had served a period of penance on Parliament's backbenches.

Key claims to be applying an even tougher regime when it comes to ministerial standards even though the Cabinet Manual already stipulates that ministers have to behave in a manner that "upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards".

You would be hard-pressed to explain how the normally garrulous Banks' being struck dumb and suffering equally sudden bouts of blank memory syndrome when questions are put to him on campaign donations fulfils the Cabinet Manual's requirements.

Banks may be found to not have broken the law. But he is hardly upholding the spirit of the law - something that is surely obligatory for an MP, let alone a minister.

The question is whether Key would have taken the same relaxed view were Banks a National Party minister. The answer is "unlikely".

Key has a point when he says if he had to stand down every minister while Opposition allegations about them were investigated, he would not have many left sitting around the Cabinet table. However, the allegations against Banks are in a special category.

They go to the heart of the democratic process in terms of insuring fairness and transparency in elections, local or national.

The question Key needs to ask himself is if Banks is so insistent that he complied with the Local Government Act, why is he so reluctant to answer any questions about donations to his campaign, be they anonymous or otherwise.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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