Pieces in the puzzle, Michael Bassett

John Banks: A Biography
Paul Goldsmith
Penguin Books, $34.95,
ISBN 0 140 26712 3

Over recent years there has been some criticism of commissioned histories. An Australian academic, Louella McCarthy, writing in the New Zealand Journal of History in April 1996 (pp90-2) suggested that institutions often capture their historians who then tamely produce the sort of work which the commissioner wants to see.

Academic superciliousness? Or true? There are occasional examples of capture, but probably rather more where the commissioning body has simply been happy to have the story told and has not sought to interfere. Besides, is the work of someone not paid directly any more free of bias? Academics write to please colleagues, often with promotion in mind. Most academic histories these days have subtexts. The point to keep in mind is that all history is contestable and needs to be read sceptically.

This is especially true of commissioned biographies of the living. Their purpose is usually obvious. Often it is the glorification of the subject: a political campaign biography, perhaps, or a soft study of some celebrity suggested by a publishing house with profit in mind. The biography of John Banks fits neither category neatly. When Banks commissioned the work he knew he was descending the greasy pole of politics and appeared happy enough. Perhaps he saw a bonus in the book’s appearance at the time when he was beginning a new five-day-a-week career on radio? Yet he scarcely needed publicity. Nor is there much more information in the book, except some precise details, that was completely unknown to Banks watchers.

This book, like its subject, is sui generis. Everything about its commissioning, writing and launching suggests that it owes its origin mostly to Banks’s half-century voyage of self-discovery. Puzzled throughout his childhood at the absence of his parents, anxious always for news and contact, he was reunited with them before his fifteenth birthday, only to discover they had been in and out of jail on charges ranging from sly-grogging to breaking and entering.

The juxtaposition between the sound, orthodox messages passed to an impressionable child by relatives and friends and the scene he found at 48 East street, Newton, where he now lived with an alcoholic mother and a congenitally criminal father amidst the comings and goings of women seeking abortions, only increased the puzzles. Who and what could he trust? Where lay truth? While Banks has made many friends, few seem to have been intimate. Colleagues within the National party and some on the opposition benches who found him engagingly frank about himself have never felt they were able to know him closely.

The book tells us of his relationships with the opposite sex; they always seem to have been secondary to Banks’s struggle to know himself. His honeymoon lasted just three days before Banks got restless; “constant activity seemed always preferable to relaxation and intimacy,” writes Goldsmith. (p133) Those who have met his ready-made family of Russian children can testify to his warm affection for them, yet there is a distance about Banks in general. Perhaps, given his upbringing, no one should be surprised. I’m not sure that even this book, well-written and only mildly critical, will explain Banks to himself.

Seen in context, the randomly dangerous aspects to Banks’s political life become more easily understood. Intellectually sharp yet self-delivered to “the drongo class of second-year fifths” (his own words) at Avondale College, Banks has always approached problems like a loner surrounded by wolves. When he has a point to make, he cries out in an alarmist manner. Hyperbole and melodrama come naturally. They are part of his survival kit. A bill before Parliament was never changed in a select committee, but “mauled and manipulated behind closed doors”; suffering was always “unbearable”; racial animosity had the potential to “erupt like a volcano”; small grants for alternative lifestyle groups managed somehow to be transformed into “huge dollops of taxpayer funds … going to disabled lesbians”. Even Goldsmith, an able, first-class honours graduate from Auckland’s history department, becomes “the brightest student ever to study history at Auckland University” when Banks talked up his book to the Listener on 3 May.

Banks thinks and talks in italics and exclamation marks. Don McKinnon observes: “I think for him it is more comfortable to have a very firm view and a resolute position, rather than something that can be easily challenged”. (p122) Plagued by self-doubts? It’s as though compromise is a challenge to his political world view — something odd in a successful businessman who must often have met people halfway.

Mike Moore may be near the mark when he says Banks will “say what he thinks, he may not think about what he says”. (p146) Words have no shades of meaning to him. Everything is full on. The lamentable result of self-teaching? Probably.

The reaction to his comments often astonishes Banks. He sometimes seems surprised that his talent for exaggeration makes headlines. Yet he has hurt many people, more than he seems ever to have imagined. And in the process he placed limits on his own advancement. His more observant parliamentary coIleagues soon learned to take a verbal onslaught from him with a grain of salt, especially when he would sit down grinning from ear to ear. Banks soon lost his initial effectiveness. What he saw as honesty and integrity, many National party colleagues came to see as foolhardiness. Banks and Banks alone made and unmade his political career, as Goldsmith makes clear.

Goldsmith produced this polished account in a comparatively short time. From discussions with him it seems he was helped by the five volumes of press clippings and memorabilia that Banks had been assembling since his early twenties. Banks’s involvement — bad as well as good — with rugby league, local government, business and politics was all neatly assembled, like the wardrobe that Simon Upton observed when he once stayed in Banks’s Northcote apartment. (Dominion,14 April 1997)

The book results from a remarkably harmonious relationship between subject and author. Goldsmith, who comes from a tightly-knit, affectionate two-parent family and who enjoyed conventional schooling and religious, musical and academic training — comes from an entirely different stable. From talking to them, each seems faintly incredulous that the project went so smoothly. The secret, of course, lay in the fact that Banks wasn’t interested in censorship. Indeed, he seems to have. wanted a story that was warts and all. Every suggestion Goldsmith made for interviews, or for more information, was greeted with encouragement from Banks. Did Banks hope the biographer might discover some piece missing from his jigsaw of life?

However, this book will not be the last word on Banks. Goldsmith’s life experience and knowledge of the political process aren’t yet sufficient to enable him to put his subject fully into context.

It is worth asking, for instance, why Banks strikes so many chords within the National party. He is a darling because of his background, not despite it There has always been a welcoming mat for self-made men within National; all around the world, parvenus are growing in prominence within conservative political parties. John Major’s cabinet contained several members whose backgrounds bore a passing resemblance to Banks’s. And in these days of growing crime and poorly-targeted welfare, someone with ties to the criminal world who is prepared to speak tough will always inspire conservative foot soldiers.

In the end, Banks will be judged politically by whether he has been a successful advocate for his ideals. Here one has doubts. After endless rhetoric about the need for better gun control, all he delivered as Minister of Police was a tame, ineffective piece of legislation. His 900 extra police turned out to be smoke and mirrors. As New Zealand rides up to crunch time, its police force desperately needing an overhaul, Banks’s time as minister will be seen as a passing interlude, one where the police were able to enjoy a friend at court who represented no threat to their established, increasingly old-fashioned ways of doing things.

The book was launched in Wellington early in April. All political parties were represented, Labour MPs rather more prominently than National’s, though there was a good smattering of National’s friends and supporters. Banks talked about himself. He was thrilled that the book had gone to a second printing. It was he, rather than a slightly bemused Goldsmith, who autographed the books. Everything about Banks warrants observation. In the fractured society that seems to be the norm these days there are likely to be more like him, but maybe few as honest.

Michael Bassett sat opposite John Banks in Parliament for nine years. He is the author of two political biographies, Sir Joseph Ward and Coates of Kaipara, and of a commissioned history of the Department of Internal Affairs that will be published later this year. 

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