In a slim file in my office, marked ‘Legal’, I have a document dated ‘Thursday the 9th day of December 1993’. It’s headed STATEMENT OF CLAIM. The claim is made by one John Archibald Banks of Whangarei, Member of Parliament (Plaintiff) and TV3 Network Services Limited (First Defendant) and Brian Finbar Myram Edwards of Auckland (Second Defendant). It’s a writ for defamation.
The writ refers to comments I’d made about Mr Banks on The Ralston Group. I can’t recall the context, but I began, ‘John Banks has to go,’ and finished, ‘So he has to go.’ I can’t repeat the lengthy bit in between, because Mr Banks might decide to issue another writ for defamation. Suffice to say, it expressed my opinion of his character at the time and it wasn’t flattering. Anyway, TV3 indicated that it would defend the writ, Mr Banks (to my knowledge) did nothing more about it and that was that. You’ll understand that I was not a fan of the current Mayor of Auckland then and continued not to be a fan, until very recently. On numerous occasions I expressed my dislike of him publicly, though rather more circumspectly. I disliked him as a talk-back host on Radio Pacific. His world, it seemed to me, was divided into ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’, a view I thought simplistic and untrue. I wasn’t much impressed when he was Mayor of Auckland from 2001 to 2004 either and did my bit to see that he wasn’t re-elected. More recently, during Jim Mora’s The Panel, I described him as ‘that dreadful man’.
I was surprised therefore to find myself and Judy invited some months ago to a private lunch which turned out to be composed entirely of John Banks supporters and some of his advisors. Citing a favourite saying of my ex-father-in-law, I said to Judy, ‘We’re among friends, but they’re not ours.’ But it turned out to be a very pleasant afternoon and Mr Banks did not appear to be bearing any grudges. Ten days ago I was one of five speakers at an Auckland Mayoral Fathers’ Breakfast at Sky City organised by Parents Inc., the organisation founded by Ian Grant. Each of us had seven minutes to give an inspirational address on fatherhood to the 750 men present. The Mayor of Auckland, formally hosting the event, spoke first. I’ve heard a lot of speeches in my time and few have been memorable. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the seven minutes in which John Banks held that audience in the palm of his hand, enthralled. He did not, as his advisors have suggested, talk about his own traumatic childhood. He talked about the troubled kids he has met in the course of his job; kids on drugs, kids in trouble with the law, kids in borstals and prisons, lost boys and girls. A common theme, especially among the boys, he observed, was the absence of a father in their lives.
These were boys without role models, boys who didn’t know how to be men. Fathers mattered and fathers had a responsibility to teach their kids the difference between right and wrong. Delivered entirely without notes, the short address was spellbinding, extremely moving, and entirely met the inspirational criteria laid down by the breakfast’s organisers. When he returned to the table, I said to him, ‘If you could talk like that during your campaign, you would certainly be the first Mayor of the Super City.’ A week later Banks was on Close Up responding to claims that his son Alex was one of the boys who had egged on 17-year-old Kings College student James Webster to go on drinking vodka, advice which at least contributed to his death. Banks was only one of two parents to front up about their sons’ involvement. Holding back tears, he told Close Up: ‘I say as a father, there but for the grace of God, go I. I said to Alex, this is very sad for our families and you’re going to have to stay home and not go out at night until you’ve undertaken a comprehensive First Aid course, so that you understand the dangers of alcohol and you clearly understand that if it ever happens again you’ll be in a position to save a life. ‘It’s a big thing for me to have to live with, but it’s very, very hard for the Webster family. My son now knows from experience that what happened was disastrous and if he was in that circumstance ever again, he would know what to do.
And on that fateful night most people didn’t know what to do. That little guy didn’t have to lose his life. ‘Life is about accepting responsibility for the actions of yourself and for the behaviour of your sons. And in this case, you know, we’re having this conversation because, hopefully, we will save one or two or a handful of James Websters.’ Banks, it seemed to me, had practised what he preached. He had fronted up, accepted responsibility as a parent for his son’s actions and set the limits that are part of a father’s duty to his children. John Banks is a polarising individual, admired by some, hated – not too strong a word – by others. For my part, I have not changed my view of the man I attacked on The Ralston Group, the talk-back host I deplored on Radio Pacific or the Mayor of Auckland in his previous incarnation. But either he has changed or I have. I suspect it’s the former. Certainly the person I have got to know in the past fortnight is a very fine man indeed. Or maybe there are two John Banks, two sides to the one man – the father and the politician perhaps. I’d be happy to have the father continue as Mayor.