Has the Banksdotcom controversy moved beyond 'palace politics' and into the broader public consciousness? Political commentators and journalists can sometimes elevate the importance of political controversies. With copy to provide and deadlines to meet, what seems vital to a political junkie may not resonate at all with the general public. The trick, of course, is knowing when an issue has really crossed over.
There are number of reasons to think that John Banks' difficulties may be the issue that actually inflicts the political and poll damage which National has so far seemed impervious to.
Firstly there is just the sheer newsworthiness of the story. If playing six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon is too difficult for you then linking John Banks to just about every scandal facing the government is child's play - Kim Dotcom, SkyCity casino, the teapot tapes and even Michelle Boag (who helped with Bank's Mayoral campaign).
There are also the great soundbites and copy that John Banks and Kim Dotcom's personalities generate. The release of a professionally produced rap by Kim Dotcom about the scandal (view here) may seem superficial but is exactly the sort of coverage that will get the attention of voters who normally don't give politics a second thought.
Then there is the momentum that keeps the story in the headlines. After weeks of coverage even the most politically averse voter will begin to absorb some awareness of the issue. Controversies can begin to feed themselves as journalists and opposition politicians furiously dig for new angles and new dirt. When it comes to political finance it's often not hard to find; remember that the controversy actually started with the questions over a SkyCity donation.
The latest revelation is about another anonymous donation to Banks' mayoral campaign to cover radio advertising, the amount of which exactly matched an advertising expense of $15,690. Trevor Mallard has questioned how a supposedly anonymous donor could know the exact cost - see David Fisher's Banks' radio ad money in spotlight. Fisher has also written a very good summary of the Banks scandal to date - see: Lost in the memory banks.
Irrespective of what the public think, the political pundits have already moved well along with almost universal consensus that Act is a dead party walking - see: Tracy Watkins' ACT 1, final scene: exit stage Right and TV3's The Nation here.
The debate is now focused on how long John Key can tolerate Banks as a minister and how much he needs his vote. John Armstrong says that Key is not under public pressure yet but that could change very quickly and Key will act swiftly to dump Banks as a minister if he needs to - see: Risking an albatross to keep a vital vote. Key has followed the only path open to him at this stage according to Matthew Hooton - see: Key forced to protect Banks, for now. Hooton makes a very interesting point that if the final outcome has the government depending on the Maori Party it will be a double-edge sword for Turia and Sharples. While it could enhance their bargaining power, particularly for Whanau Ora, it would also give them the power to back up with action their stated opposition to numerous government policies. That may not ultimately be in their interest as it is unlikely the coalition agreement would last long under those circumstances.
Key can only control whether Banks is a minister, not whether he stays in Parliament (even though he effectively put him in there), but the issue is how Banks would react if he lost his ministerial status. He is unlikely to go down without a fight - particularly when his very political survival is at stake. Key has to consider how stable his government looks to voters. The Standard makes the point that budget legislation can take months to actually be passed into law and predicts that Key will not want a by-election until the summer - see: Resignationwatch: constraints.
It must be galling for both Banks and Act that speculation is well advanced as to their replacement as National's natural support party. Andrea Vance says National President Peter Goodfellow is making no secret of his overtures to the Conservative Party and Colin Craig, who has indicated that he would stand should there be a by-election in Epsom - see: Craig could be Nats' new act. The problem for Craig is that he would actually be going head to head with National rather than Act. A Herald on Sunday poll showed that John Banks' support in the electorate has plummeted and that National would easily win the seat - see: By-election would end Banks - poll. Cameron Slater however is scathing of Goodfellow's attempt - see: Is National deliberately insulting Colin Craig.
Rodney Hide has ruled out re-running for the Epsom seat (see the Herald's Hide rules out run at Banks' seat and watch TV3's interview with Hide here) and while expressing sympathy for John Banks has gone into bat for Banks' current tormentor Kim Dotcom. Hide questions Dotcom's treatment in New Zealand in God defend our citizens - the Government won't. Hide, however, is accused of amnesia by Andrew Geddis who details the various laws and policies used against Kim Dotcom that Hide supported in during his years in parliament - see: These are not the droids you are looking for.
At long last, someone has come to John Banks' defense. Former Act leader Richard Prebble says Banks has done nothing wrong.This in itself may explain more about Act's current polling than anything. For more on the decline of Act see Part 2 and Part 3 of ex Act MP David Garrett's series on the Act Party.
Other important or interesting political items today include:
* Tim Watkin takes Steven Joyce to task on the government's inconsistent attitude to debt - see: National 101: How to hate debt & raise it at the same time.
* TVNZ has obtained reports written by SkyCity showing that the number of problem gamblers using the casino has increased by 300% since 2008 - see: Problem gambler numbers swell at SkyCity.
* Ex-Prime Ministers and their spouses will have their parliamentary travel and pension perks locked in. Since 2008 these perks have cost $775,000 and are even paid to spouses once the ex-PM is dead - see: Key to lock in PM's perks.
* Finally, if anonymous donations and insider influence don't work you can always try alcohol. Michael Field reports that foreign fishing vessels have resorted to getting their official MAF observers drunk or waiting until they are asleep to illegally dump fish - see: Observers 'drunk' or 'asleep' as fish dumped.