John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Banks will take verdict hard

ACT Party leader John Banks. Photo / Mark Mitchell
ACT Party leader John Banks. Photo / Mark Mitchell

John Banks will take his guilty verdict for filing a false electoral return hard - very hard.

His life has come full circle in a manner which he could never have predicted and which will torment him for long after the public tumult surrounding the case has subsided.

The all-powerful driving force in Banks' life, which saw him carve out a successful career as an entrepreneur and and led to his natural progression into politics, has been the sheer awfulness of his parents' sordid life of crime.

More precisely, it is his memory of the horror and ignominy of seeing his parents sentenced to prison after being convicted on back-street abortion charges.
Speaking after being forced to stand down as a minister last year - and coming close to breaking down in the process - Banks said he had devoted much of his life to trying "to balance the family ledger".

To have himself ended up in court and on the receiving end of a guilty verdict will have convinced him that he has failed in life and failed miserably.

Joining that not-so exclusive club of MPs who have been chucked out of Parliament for good - an institution which he has graced and loved for more than two decades - would be equally if not more devastating.

Read more:
John Banks found guilty

In time, however, he will regard the verdict as just another low point in a public life which has been punctuated constantly with noteworthy highs and similarly littered with hard-to-take lows.

But not now. Banks is cursed with being a perfectionist. But the world of politics is imperfect. It has a habit of of throwing a curve-ball out of nowhere. And Banks - who would have thought he was off the hook after the police opted not to press charges - got one which he will argue to his dying day he never deserved.

But as much as he has been found guilty of rorting the handling of political donations, he is more guilty of foolishness. For that reason, it would be silly to send him to prison.

That anyway looks unlikely to happen.

During a career in politics at both the at national and local level, Banks could play the game as roughly as anyone.

He once used one of his radio programmes to describe a Herald political reporter, who had penned a few negative, but pretty innocuous remarks rebuking Banks for something he had done as a minister, as "a streak of weasel's piss".

But behind the bravado and unique phraseology - he has constantly spoken of how he would "restructure, rebuild, rebrand and relaunch" Act as a new party - lies a very human heart.

He has a genuine and lasting regard for those with whom he has crossed paths. He is capable of extraordinary acts of kindness.

Apart from the events which saw him end up in court, his biggest mistake was to return to national politics three years ago as Act's sole MP. He has not had a happy time.

Parliamentary life had changed a lot during his 12-year absence. Being a lone MP has made things even tougher.

Who could forget the night in the House when Labour picked at him like buzzards feeding on road-kill? That is not a criticism of Labour. Banks simply had no colleagues to protect him.

Yet equally anyone listening to the House back in January will not forget his speech on income inequality. This was no academic treatise - and all the more powerful for not being so.

As someone who had experienced grinding poverty - unlike the great majority of MPs - he made a plea for an end to government borrowing to fund ever more welfare.

"I know what it is like going to school every day in an ex-army uniform with no shoes; spending all day, every day, out of the classroom stealing other kids' lunches; going home to bread and milk - at best - at night, cooked over an open fire with sugar on top; if I am very lucky, taking Weet-bix covered in dripping to school each day; and living in a very dark hole. That is child poverty."

The speech moved other MPs in the House regardless of political allegiance. But it was also a reminder that as much as he might try to do so, he can never escape his past.

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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