For the first time in 3.5 years, Lockwood Smith didn’t preside over question time yesterday. The hapless National backbencher Eric Roy took his place resulting an awfully convenient farce. Key refused to answer questions, going so far as to say he wasn’t responsible for who is a minister. But, like the sudden slew of ministerial announcements, Key’s evasiveness will not distract the media, which smells blood.
Key’s position – that his chief of staff has asked Banks whether he broke the law, Banks says he didn’t, so Key has confidence in him – simply isn’t sustainable. Key has a duty to do more than take the (second-hand) word of Banks that he didn’t break the law. The Prime Minister has a positive duty to ensure that ministers of the Crown are living up to the highest standards, not just legal but ethical. Key himself said in the past that simply acting legally (and it’s still not clear that Banks did) is insufficient for a minister – “The issue has never been one of legality as much as ethics. The criminal code is the bare minimum standards for society. For MPs we expect behaviour well beyond that.”
And the problem for Key and Banks is that, in sticking to a mere legal test, which Key has refused to inquire into beyond getting a reassurance from Banks second-hand, they are admitting that Banks acted unethically. When the two of them say that the Local Electoral Act is loose and could be tightened, they are saying ‘it was wrong to do what Banks did, but we think he skirted within the law’.
Does anyone believe that it is OK for a minister to exploit loopholes to try to remain within the law, knowing that his behaviour is unethical? Even Banks and Key are conceding that Banks behaved unethically.
Key is sticking to a legal test in this instance because he is banking on the Police being as useless and slow as ever on electoral law.
The simple fact is that Key can’t afford to take Banks’ portfolios off him and potentially trigger a by-election that would see the Right lack the votes to pass legislation without the Maori Party for at least 3 months. So, he’s going to play this stupid ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ game for as long as he can and hope the media gets bored (cf the Richard Worth affair).
How long he can hold the line as more information, such as phone records, emerges remains to be seen. But the more Key stretches the bounds of creditability to protect Banks, the more damage he will do to his office as Prime Minister and to his government.