The John Banks donations fiasco has been sustained for far longer than it ought to have been by the public utterances of the man himself, some of which have sounded like they were plucked from the script for an absurdist political satire.

But of all the statements that have been made, the one that has attracted distressingly little attention was uttered by the Prime Minister. Asked on Monday whether he was happy for ministers in his administration to act unethically, as long as they complied with the law. "There is quite a wide definition of ethics," he said. "The test I have to apply is the law."

As others have noted, it's a somewhat less rigorous attitude than he demanded of his predecessor in the job when Winston Peters got into a spot of bother over donations from expatriate billionaire Owen Glenn. And it is doubly questionable since he does not need Banks to maintain a majority in the House.

In his early responses to questions about whether he was aware of the source of two $25,000 donations to his 2010 campaign for the mayoralty of the new Auckland City, Banks studiously sought refuge in the letter of the law. He told the PM - or so the PM says - that he had "complied with all the local government laws and regulations". Banks himself said that "when I signed my declaration for the mayoralty I signed it in good faith".


Yet what appears to have gone on is the very antithesis of actions taken in good faith. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of "good faith" includes such phrases as "honesty of intention", "sincerity in professions"; the opposite - bad faith - is applied to the intent to deceive.

In short, Banks may seek to hide behind the letter of the law in this matter, but he is not entitled to expect public respect or credibility for doing so.

Act Party president Chris Simmons has called the matter a beat-up and expressed dismay that the party should be implicitly maligned because of the alleged actions of a man who was not even a member of it at the time. But he - like the other two - misses the point.

The question all three men need to answer is whether we should expect our politicians in general and cabinet ministers in particular to adhere to higher standards than simply observing the letter of the law.

They need to remember that an ethical person is one who knows the difference between what he has a right to do and what is right to do.