Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

John Banks: A Biography

By Paul Goldsmith, Penguin Books, Auckland, 1997

Reviewed by Michael Bassett

Over recent years there has been some criticism of commissioned histories. An Australian academic writing in the New Zealand Journal of History in April 1996 suggested that institutions often capture their historians who then tamely produce the sort of work which the commissioner wants to see.(1) Academic superciliousness? Or true? There can be no definitive conclusion: 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 at any point except to pay the cheque. 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 sub-texts. The point that must be kept 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. What makes the biography of John Banks interesting is that it fits neither category neatly. At the point where Banks commissioned the work, he knew he was descending the greasy pole of politics, and appeared happy enough at the prospect. 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 John 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 eventually re-united with them before his fifteenth birthday, only to discover that they had been in and out of gaol on a variety of 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 of the boy's life. Who and what could one 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 four days before Banks got restless; "constant activity seemed always preferable to relaxation and intimacy," writes Goldsmith.(2) Those privileged to have met his ready-made family of young Russian children can testify to his warm affection for them, yet there is a distance about John Banks in general that puzzles. Perhaps, given his upbringing, no one should be surprised. I'm not sure that even this book, well-written and only mildly critical as it is, will necessarily explain Banks to himself. His quest may always remain unanswered.

Seen in context, the randomly dangerous aspects to John 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 to him. They are part of his survival kit. Thus the extravagance of so many of his utterances. A bill before Parliament was never changed in a select committee, it was "mauled and manipulated behind closed doors"; suffering, whenever he came upon it, was always "unbearable"; racial animosity had the potential to " erupt like a volcano"; small grants for alternative life-style groups managed somehow to be transformed into "huge dollops of taxpayer funds...going to disabled lesbians". Even Paul Goldsmith, the author of the book, who is an able, first-class honours graduate from Auckland's History Department, becomes "the brightest student ever to study history at Auckland University" when Banks recently talked up his book to a journalist.(3) John Banks thinks and talks in italics and exclamation marks. Don McKinnon observes at one point: "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".(4) 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 halfway those with whom he was dealing. Mike Moore may be nearer the mark when he hints at a level of verbal superficiality. Banks, he says, will "say what he thinks, he may not think about what he says".(5) 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 colleagues 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.

Paul 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.(6) 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. When talking to them both, 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. Perhaps the biographer might discover some piece missing from Banks's jigsaw of life?

However, this book will not be the last word on Banks. While it is a nicely written product from a very promising young professional, 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 one of the darlings at any party gathering 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-targetted 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, John 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. However, there was a good smattering of National's friends and supporters in the audience. It was Banks's night. He 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 John 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.


1. Louella McCarthy in NZJH, Vol. 30, No.1, April 1996, pp.90-92.

2. John Banks: A Biography, p.133

3. Listener, 3 May 1997, p.46.

4. John Banks: A Biography, p.122.

5. Ibid, p.146.

6. Dominion, 14 April 1997.

Michael Bassett sat opposite to John Banks in Parliament for nine years.