Why John Key's doing the right thing, but is still in trouble

John Banks' answers to the Dotcom donations have been incredible, but have left the Prime Minister with no choice but to back him. But the differing versions of events are so stark, let's not pretend that everyone can be telling the truth

It's all about standards -- that crucial question in politics of where you draw the line of acceptable behaviour. When it comes to Kim Dotcom's donation to John Banks' mayoral campaign, Prime Minister John Key can sit uncomfortably but safely on the legal side of the line. For now. But the thing about politics is that lines have a habit of changing.

The Dotcom donation is yet another storm around ministerial judgment that National is going to have to weather, in what can now be called the 'tradition' of Phil Heatley, Pansy Wong, and Nick Smith amongst others.

Voters have been patient with National thus far and in this case the fact the minister is (officially at least) the leader of another party means John Key has the potential to limit the damage to himself and National.

For now, you'd think Key has done enough. And he couldn't do much more.

Yes, the political incentive for Key is to keep Banks in place; he wants the vote and a partner to his right. But for now he's also acting fairly.

First, John Banks has given him and the public his word that he acted legally. A Prime Minster must reasonably expect to trust his minister's word. Second, the actions happened when Banks was not in parliament and not a member of Key's cabinet. If we want the PM to be the moral guardian of his team -- and to some extent we do -- there's still got to be a limit how far back his responsibility lies.

To stand Banks down at this stage, when a police inquiry may take months and central facts are in dispute, would seem to a rush to judgment. Banks' ethics are  questionable, but as yet unproven. But Key has his own ethical principle to hold to -- that of trusting a partner in the first instance, which is the decent thing to do as well.

Wouldn't we all want our colleagues and friends to give us the benefit of the doubt, initially at least?

The problem for all of us trying to judge this case -- Key included -- is that we have two conflicting versions of events. Or at least, on one side a version of events which has clear implications and on the other, no version of events but a denial of those implications. It's he says/he says.

What it's not -- I'm looking at you, Richard Prebble -- is just a Labour beat-up. These are allegations from a billionaire businessman, albeit one on bail facing chanrges.

The good news for the confused is that with such clear denials, only one man can be telling the truth. The bad news is that if both of them stick to their guns, the police may struggle to prove a thing.

Dotcom could not have been clearer. Banks knew about the donation, the amount, and was in the room when the cheques were written. Dotcom says Banks later called him to say thanks.

Banks rejects the purpose of the phone call -- saying he rang to thank Dotcom for the fireworks display he paid for -- and says "I was not aware that Mr Dotcom had made this donation to my campaign". That implies he wasn't in the room and didn't have the alleged conversation. Or, if taken purely technically, could mean Dotcom's version was correct but that Banks is claiming he didn't know for sure the offer had been followed through on.

Which is pathetic, but there you go... On all the other matters, Banks has refused to answer.

Nevertheless, on such disputed events, the Prime Minister cannot be pre-emptive. That's not to say that his position doesn't come at a price.

Where his moral high ground starts to erode is that he's not exactly making much effort to become better informed. To simply have your Chief of Staff make a phone call and not make time for a one-on-one suggests an indifference to the issue of political donations or a willful desire to remain ignorant as long as possible. Neither's an example of great leadership.

His political worries stem from the fact he promised a higher standard of ethics for his lot than the previous lot, yet clearly they're not performing. So it looks as though his standards are slipping and becoming all too convenient.

If you genuinely hold to a high standard of ethics -- as required by the Cabinet Manual -- AND a "higher standard of ethics" -- as required by his promise to voters -- you surely want to get to the bottom of things. No, you can't interfere in a police investigation (one reason why Labour might have wanted to have delayed), but you can reasonably demand answers from a member of your executive team.

Key's other core problem is that by using the law as his threshold, he'll look inconsistent and unprincipled if he doesn't continue to stick to that line.

Key was forced in parliament today to say that Banks was "OK as long as you are in accordance with the law". That's a long, long way from "higher ethical standards".

But having backed Banks so long as he's not found guilty of a crime, he's now going to have to defend Banks for all his sins up to that point.

Banks could well be convicted in the court of public opinion without being convicted in a court of law, and to be consistent Key will have to stand by him as the public turn against him. That's not somewhere Key wants to be, but it looks like he's all-but boxed himself in there.

Sure, if it's a matter of saving himself he'll find a way out. But it'll cost him.

John Banks sits amidst similar thorny issues. He can use the cover of a police inquiry as a way of avoiding asking any more questions (another reason why Labour might have wanted to wait another day or two before laying the police complaints!). But the way he has evaded questions thus far looks guilty.

It's remarkable that after the story broke on Campbell Live on Friday night, he hadn't cobbled together a better line of answers than the silence and giggling he used on Q+A on Sunday morning.

Laughing in the face of serious questions isn't wise. Claiming repeated lapses is the best way to look like a scoundrel. Not answering a simple, direct question is evasive. Many will simply draw the conclusion that that's because he doesn't have answers.

As David Shearer pointed out in the House today, who forgets a helicopter ride to Auckland's largest mansion? And is someone with such a poor memory fit for cabinet?

Key had only one word answers, a sure sign of his discomfort. He wouldn't answer whether he was satisfied with Bank's incomplete answers to the media -- and Deputy Speaker Eric Roy let him dodge that.

The PM could only say that Banks has his confidence as long as he has his confidence. Which really is the least he could say.

That leaves us stuck between two versions, waiting for other voices to help paint a clearer picture. You've got to think it's only a matter of time.