Scandals and sideshows, sleaze and slurs

Autumn has become a season of scandals and sideshows – John Key’s casino-convention centre “scandal”, the Banks-Dotcom donation “scandal”, the sideshow of the mythical David Shearer leadership challenge – all soon to be wiped away by the start of the main game: the defining Budget of 2012.

The political scandals and sideshows of Autumn 2012 have much in common. They are structured on screeds of speculation and scraps of substance.

Take John Key’s so-called SkyCity “scandal” and all the speculation about shonky deals behind closed doors. Nothing could have been more overt than the Prime Minister’s efforts to land a deal that would see New Zealand gain a large-scale international convention centre at no cost to the taxpayer.

Big stand-alone convention centres are not money-spinners for their owners. They suck as an investment and blow cash out to neighboring businesses: like hotels and shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. A government that’s borrowing its way out of the depths of a recession has no business taking on the added burden of funding a convention centre. The same goes for the Auckland Council, with its hefty public transport priorities. But central government, the local council, the tourism industry, and the business community all agree – a large-scale international convention and exhibition centre is a necessary part of the country’s infrastructure.

SkyCity – with its synergistic complex of hotel, restaurant, casino, and entertainment interests in the CBD of New Zealand’s major international gateway city – was an obvious prospect for the project from Day One. It’s pretty natural that the Prime/Tourism Minister would tell government officials to stop working up a business case while he spoke to SkyCity and, he says, four other potential bidders. After all, if the government didn’t want to fund the centre, building the business case ought to be left to bidders.

To date, no-one has produced evidence that the convention centre tender process was tainted. It has not been challenged by other bidders. We are told SkyCity alone was prepared to meet the full construction cost. When John Key announced casino operator’s selection as preferred bidder last year he made it quite clear the company was “asking for some alterations to gambling regulations and legislation”. He gave an assurance that “any changes to gambling regulations will be subject to a full public submission process”. Obviously, any legislative change requires Parliamentary scrutiny and approval. The long silence that’s followed could indicate there’s some hard bargaining going on, but neither SkyCity nor the Government can seal a deal without public announcements.

Meantime, the information vacuum is filled by media speculation about “backroom” deals and the impact of the yet-to-be specified casino expansion on problem gambling and related anti-social behavior. There’s some evidence that SkyCity needs to clean up its act in terms of harm minimization – but no-one has produced smoking gun proof of any scandalous political behavior over the casino-convention centre deal. Anyway, there’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.

What have we seen in the so-called Banks-Dotcom scandal? A video of John Banks meeting Kim Dotcom at the former Crisco Mansion, shaking hands and proposing a toast.

How did he get there? Banks says he can’t remember riding a helicopter out to the Crisco Mansion. Now, we’re shown the pilot’s log book. There’s the candidate’s name on the passenger list. Had he ever flown to the mansion in his own helicopter? He can’t remember. It may be no big deal to a politician who routinely pilots himself round the Auckland region, but the implication was obvious: he either has a dangerously short memory [and he does not], or he has something to conceal [which is true, but not necessarily wrong].

Dotcom says Banks advised him to make two donations of $25,000 because then it could be an anonymous donation. Nothing wrong with that. Except that candidates who advise donors they can make an anonymous contribution have to insulate themselves from any knowledge of whether or not the contribution was subsequently made. Then, they can honestly declare they don’t know the identity of an anonymous donor. And if they ever want the support of other anonymous donors in future, they will say nothing that might lead to the identification of one of them even if that donor chooses to out himself or herself.

Banks is following rules he has learnt by rote. His taut self-discipline – and some legal advice he now says he shouldn’t have taken - left him little scope to depart from his own robotic, bullet-point version of the Sergeant Schultz catch-cry: “I know nothing”; and its minor variations “I don’t remember” or “I can’t recall”. He walks away from the camera to the chant “Nothing to fear. Nothing to hide. It will all come out in the wash” because he knows the real wash can only take place in a court – if it gets that far - not in a kerbside TV interview.

Yes, TV3’s John Campbell has shown us copies of the cheques signed by Dotcom. But he has not shown us copies of receipts with Candidate Banksie’s signature on them, or any proof that Banks was advised of the identity of anonymous donors by other members of his campaign team before he signed off his spending return to the Electoral Officer. And can I hear a tape recording of his phone call to thank Dotcom for his donation? No?

At this point, I’ll reserve my judgment and leave the serious investigation in the hands of the Auckland Council electoral officer and the police. Meantime, Banks is entitled to expect a presumption of innocence until found guilty under the law, or by the voters of Epsom.

I’ve left the mythical David Shearer leadership challenge speculation to last, because it simply is no more than that. There is no challenger.

Since the election, Shearer has been doing what he said he would do: reconnecting with Labour at its grassroots, testing the mood in areas where the party took its most hurtful bruises, identifying what did and didn’t work in the last campaign, floating ideas about policies to be developed. It is just what a newbie leader should do – walk and listen, then talk and run.

If anyone expected Shearer to perform an overnight miracle and grow Labour support immediately after an election that demonstrated an almost unprecedented scale of voter apathy and distrust, they are barking mad. If anyone thinks leadership change, and constitutional reviews are painless, stress-free processes, or that Labour’s fortunes can be changed by another change of leader or a sudden lurch, left or right, they are also living in a state of canine delusion.

The one comfort Shearer can take from the hysteria inspired by the rapid departure of his first chief of staff is that it has come so quickly. It has flushed out Shearer’s most vociferous critics, and they have shot their bolts too early to do him lasting damage.

Thankfully, we are rapidly moving on to what will be a defining moment in New Zealand politics: the presentation of the Budget of 2012 on May 24. This season of show-time, mini scandals, sideshows, slurs and sleaze will soon be over. Reality dawns.