Editorial: Investigation into police needed over Banks case

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Andrew Little. Photo / APN
Andrew Little. Photo / APN

Labour MP Andrew Little is right, an inquiry is needed into the police decision not to prosecute John Banks. Two judges have had no difficulty finding, first, that there was ample evidence to prosecute and, second, that the Act MP was guilty of filing a false return on donations to his last Auckland mayoral election campaign.

It should not have taken a private prosecution by a litigious non-lawyer to spur the Crown prosecutors into action. Banks' guilt seemed obvious as soon as he pleaded memory loss to accusations by the donor, Kim Dotcom, that a $50,000 donation had been split in two at the mayor's suggestion so that it could be reported as anonymous.

The more the MP could not remember about his visits with the memorable Mr Dotcom, the more impossible his position became. Yet aninitial police investigation accepted his lame excuse that he had not knowingly filed a false return because he had signed the return without reading it.

It is hard not to share the suspicion of Labour's justice spokesman that the decision not to prosecute was influenced by the trouble Mr Dotcom has caused the police in another context.

Mr Dotcom's resistance to extradition to the United States, the serious allegations he faces over the sources of his wealth, and the help he expected in return for his political donation may not endear him to many New Zealanders. But he stood up to a rigorous cross-examination in the Banks trial and Justice Edwin Wylie described him asnot only "reliable and credible" but "a good witness".

The hardest judicial decision is probably still to come. Banks' guilt was never in much doubt but the sentencing will show how seriously the judge regards the offence.

The police seem not to take electoral law breaches very seriously, sometimes understandably. The "treating" provisions can be petty and complaints can draw the police into the heat of a campaign.

Banks' donation arrangements may be more common than party fundraisers want to admit, and that could have influenced the decision not to prosecute him. But it is not for the police to decide what is acceptable political practice. They are obliged to enforce the letter of the law.

It can never be easy for officers of the law to close their minds to the political implications of investigations involving politicians.

Former Auckland prosecutor Simon Moore, QC, interviewed at his elevation to the High Court bench, said the corruption and bribery trial of former Labour MP Taito Phillip Field had been one of his most "technically difficult and challenging cases".

When the police decided not to prosecute Act's sole MP the Government was less than a year into its second term of office. If Banks had been found guilty at that time and convicted, National could have lost its closest ally in Parliament and might have struggled to pass much of its legislative programme, including asset sales.

None of that, of course, can be a police concern but it must be hard to ignore the implications. Mr Little would like an inquiry to ask whether New Zealand needs a dedicated prosecuting agency for questions of electoral malpractice.

Perhaps the jurisdiction of such a body could include all accusations against MPs. Too often, the police are called into an issue for the political purpose of keeping it alive.

The police have better things to do. Just as MPs should keep out of ordinary law enforcement, the enforcers of law should not be asked to rule on the conduct of legislators. Parliament is capable of policing itself and judgment of members' behaviour can usually be left to the voters.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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