POWER PLAY with Liz Banas

4:29 pm on 7 June 2014

Just when Prime Minister John Key thought the John Banks saga would be at an end, it looks set to dominate attacks on him and his Government just as it prepares to go into full-blown election campaigning.

John Banks outside the Auckland High Court.

John Banks speaks to media outside court. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

The Opposition is calling for Banks to resign after he was found guilty by the High Court on Thursday for filing a false electoral return following his failed election campaign in the 2010 Auckland mayoral race.

Justice Wylie was not convinced beyond reasonable doubt that Banks knew that his return of electoral expenses for the $15,000 donation from SkyCity, was false.

But on the matter that Banks knew that two donations - together worth $50,000 - were from Kim Dotcom, Justice Wylie was unequivocal that Banks knew who they were from.

The Crown case was that Banks asked for Mr Dotcom to split the donation into two cheques of $25,000 each; Banks only ever admitted that he asked Mr Dotcom for a donation but said he was turned down.

Banks still maintains his innocence, saying he would never file a false anything, let alone a false election return.

Justice Wylie didn't believe him, and it's unlikely that anyone other than Banks' staunchest supporters do either.

Thursday's guilty finding should have been a clear cut end to the sorry saga with a conviction that would have seen Banks tossed out of Parliament. Electoral law requires any MP convicted of an offence with a maximum sentence of two years or more, lose their seat.

But because Banks' lawyers are seeking a discharge without conviction, Banks can stay on in Parliament.

The convergence of the dates set for sentencing - which is when a decision will be made on whether Banks will avoid conviction for his offence - and the rising of Parliament before the general election on 20 September, mean the matter will drag on for John Key and his Government for some time yet.

Parliament rises on the 31 July, and Banks sentencing hearing happens the very next day on 1 August. That means Banks will continue to exercise his vote in Parliament and collect a salary for the rest of the Parliamentary term - and potentially right on up until the election if he's not convicted.

Mr Key has steadfastly supported Banks, who, as the ACT MP for Epsom, lends sometimes crucial support to the Government on confidence and supply votes in Parliament.

Throughout the two years of accusations that Banks knew he had received donations from both Mr Dotcom and SkyCity, Mr Key has said he accepts Banks' word that he complied with the law.

Mr Key has kept to that line, stating he hasn't read the police investigation report done in 2012 after the matter was referred to them following a complaint from Labour.

The upshot of the investigation was that police found Banks had solicited and received donations and the electoral returns were false, but that there was not enough evidence to prove Banks had done that knowingly.

That hasn't been good enough for Opposition parties and it wasn't good enough for the retired Wellington accountant, Graham McCready, who took a private prosecution and was successful.

It was only when the District Court ruled there was enough evidence to bring Banks to court, that he relinquished his ministerial roles and announced he'd give up the ACT party leadership and not contest the Epsom seat again.

The Court also decided the case should be given priority because of the impending election.

If the picture of an MP that props up the Government in the dock was uncomfortable for it, the guilty finding will be excruciating.

Potentially an acquittal would still have been problematic for the Government.

Banks, and the Government's support and reliance on him, would still be targeted by opposition parties, but a finding of innocence would have meant that criticism would dissipate quite quickly.

Now the Government has on its hands the prospect of five more sitting weeks of Parliament and more questions and attacks over Mr Key's credibility on the matter.

If, at best, Banks was wilfully ignorant of filing false information on those returns, then Mr Key, too is complicit for choosing to ignore the obvious.

John Key would have been hoping the Banks issue would have been put to bed. In his dreams.