Mike Williams: The downfall of John Banks

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Mike Williams
Mike Williams

THE trial of The Honourable John Banks MP came to an end last Thursday with a guilty verdict on a charge of knowingly filing a false election return. It is likely, however, that the matter isn't over as an appeal is under consideration and a conviction has yet to be entered by Justice Wylie. This latter technicality means that Mr Banks can keep his seat in Parliament at least until the day of sentencing on the 1st of August.
As the charge he was found guilty on could attract a prison sentence of more than two years, that would mean Banks' seat of Epsom becoming vacant.
There won't be many people on any side of politics who take much enjoyment out of this outcome. Banks was a tough opponent in both parliamentary and local body politics but virtually everyone has a grudging respect for the man and what he achieved in a long and varied political career.
I first came across John Banks in 1981 when I visited Whangarei as a Labour Party organiser. Banks had challenged and defeated a sitting MP, John Elliott, for the National Party nomination and Labour thought the provincial city seat was again winnable having held it between 1972 and 1975.
I recall some mirth amongst Labour Party activists that Banks was visiting primary schools and handing out pencils with the logo "John Banks for Whangarei" stencilled on them. As primary school kids didn't have a vote, the Whangarei Labourites couldn't see the point. I reminded them that those pencils (like the balloons we'd handed out in Hastings three years before) almost certainly went to the kids' homes where grown-up voters were to be found and that it probably meant that Banks intended to be around for a long time.
Banks went on to represent Whangarei for 18 years, though his local popularity waned and his majority in 1993 was only 303 votes.
He was a rambunctious MP, once calling Michael Cullen a "poofter" and referring to the gay Labour MP, Chris Carter as "Christine", though probably not to his face.
A Cabinet minister in the first two Bolger National Governments, Banks refused to serve in the post-1996 Bolger Cabinet as he didn't want to be in a Cabinet that included Winston Peters.
In 1999 Banks retired from Parliament and two years later defeated another former National MP, Christine Fletcher, to become Mayor of Auckland City.
He was at that time a polarising figure and in one of many lapses of judgment, Banks championed a motorway dubbed the Eastern Corridor which would have carved through the very leafy eastern suburbs which had given him such strong support in the election before.
This cost him the Auckland Mayoralty in the 2004 local elections.

He was defeated by Dick Hubbard, two normally right-leaning wards elected anti-motorway councillors and the centre-left won control of the council for the first time since the thirties.
He was not unable to learn from his mistakes, however, and a chastened and less intolerant John Banks made a come-back in 2007, having abandoned his motorway ambitions. Right-leaning councillors again formed a majority on the council.
He became a champion of local body merger in the greater Auckland area and reportedly worked amicably with Prime Minister Helen Clark who also favoured the biggest council amalgamation in New Zealand's history.
It was his run for the mayoralty of the new super-city which was to ultimately end his political life. His well-funded mayoral campaign was blighted when he incomprehensibly insulted sprawling and vote-rich South Auckland. Banks took the defeat honourably and returned to his varied business interests.
Somewhere in this campaign Banks met Kim Dotcom, a German internet entrepreneur who had funded a fireworks display on Auckland's Waitemata Harbour. My family watched this display from an upstairs balcony. It was also Banks' career that was going up in smoke, but no one was to know this.
By all accounts Mayor Banks approached Dotcom for a contribution to his campaign fund and was given $50,000 in two cheques of $25,000.
Accounts of the transaction vary, but the judge believed beyond reasonable doubt that Banks knew where these donations came from when he signed a return of election expenses in which these were defined as anonymous.
The truth is that his demise as an Act MP will make little difference to the John Key National Government this close to a general election.
If the verdict finally turns into a conviction, Key's major problem may well be around Banks' New Zealand Order of Merit award. With this kind of conviction, it would be normal for the award to be taken away.
#Mike Williams is a former Labour Party president who grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is a director of Auckland Transport and the NZ Howard League chief executive.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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