Banks is deadmeat. It’s just a matter of time before Key gives him the boot. Politically, he must. He has grounds, even on the limited ‘ethics while a minister’ test he has created. We’re now just waiting for something sufficiently new that Key can use it as justification for an about face. Then comes the question of a by-election. And that’s where it gets tricky for Key.
Clearly, the Right has no interest in Banks hanging around when he’s no longer a minister – he’s not doing anything useful, he’s a continuing source of embarrassment to the government, and he’s taking the place someone with a future could fill. Better to have a by-election.
Things could get really interesting if Banks stayed but left ACT, even joining the Conservatives. It would be the ultimate kick in the guts for ACT, but I don’t see it happening.
Now, unless there’s a three-way shit fight between National, Catherine Isaac for ACT, and Colin Craig for the Conservatives, I can’t see a Labour candidate winning. In fact, the only reason to stand one would be to get a platform to embarrass Key. So, the result of any by-election will ultimately leave the balance of the House unchanged – with the important caveat that Craig would vote against asset sales (in the long-run, getting Colins in might not be worth that initial gain for the Left because it would give National a desperately needed partner).
What matters is the three months where the seat of Epsom would sit empty between Banks resigning and a new member being sworn in – leaving 60 v 60 on rightwing policies, which would cause legislation to fail. National can’t afford to have its agenda in hiatus for three months right now – it needs to pass the Budget, the asset sales law, and the SkyCity deal, amongst other things that the Maori Party won’t vote for.
It’s not as easy, as Matt McCarten suggests, as waiting until the day after Budget Day. While the Budget legislation will be introduced to the House on 24th of May, that is only the beginning of a lengthy process. The Budget debate (technically, the second reading of the Appropriations (Estimates) Bill) goes on for a couple of dozen hours of House sitting time. There’s only 20 hours of sitting time in a sitting week – with recess and all the other things the House does, last year it took three weeks just for the Budget debate to end. Then, the individual Votes (parts of the Budget like Health and Education) are considered by the responsible select committees, and the Budget goes back to the House for two more rounds of debate. Last year’s Budget didn’t actually finally pass until August the 12th – 3 months after it was introduced.
If Banks was going to hold on that long, he may as well hold on until December, just like Pansy Wong did. That way most of the time the Epsom seat would be empty would be while the House was risen over summer.
So, I reckon we won’t see a by-election until the end of the year, or the start of 2013. Given that Key can’t afford to have a by-election earlier, how will he keep Banks from resigning? Leaving him as a minister would be one option but that’s going to get more and more politically damaging. It is already becoming all about Key, all about his weakness and lack of principles. Just firing him risks an early resignation. So – and this shouldn’t be surprising any more of this government – we’ll see some kind of dirty deal.