Gordon Campbell on the John Banks verdict

So John Banks has been found guilty of knowingly signing off a fraudulent electoral return. It is an offence that carries a penalty – two years in jail or a $10,000 fine – that should indicate the will of Parliament that such offences be treated very seriously indeed. At the time, Parliament presumably wanted to deter this sort of dodgy behavior, which undermines the public’s faith in the integrity of local government elections. Since we’re about to enter the home stretch of an election campaign, you’d think the need to protect that faith should be paramount.

So far though, what have been the consequences of Banks being found guilty of this offence? Zilch. So far, his guilt has not been recorded and will not be until August, pending pre-sentencing reports and other matters. Thanks to this technicality, a by election may be avoided, subject to timing as to whether Parliament will, or won’t need to re-convene to deliver a 75% vote to avert the need for one.

More to the point, Banks will be able to sit in Parliament in the meantime, and vote on any legislation that comes before the House. Conceivably, this business could include the private members bill from Labour MP Ian Galloway-Lees that seeks to scrap the electoral coat-tail provisions of MMP, a bill that has been drawn from the ballot. Should a prime beneficiary of the “cup of tea” be allowed to vote on that matter – or any other business of Parliament – after being found guilty of a serious offence of a fraudulent nature? Is this likely to encourage public respect for Parliament?

For his part, Banks has shown no contrition whatsoever. His legal team has signalled its intention to apply for a discharge without conviction. Outside the court, Banks himself jauntily cited a 1930s song about how into each life some rain must fall – as if this verdict was the product of some entirely external force that had descended on him arbitrarily, as if Banks himself had not been the rainmaker. To that end, there has been a strong media narrative that has chosen to focus on the pathos of Banks’ condition. Both the NZ Herald and Fairfax have cited the criminal convictions of his parents and the alleged vow of a teenage John Banks to follow the path of hard work and righteousness, only to fall prey to…well, the Herald all but portrayed Banks as the hapless victim of some ancient family curse:

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

Right. No irony of course in the fact that this sentimentalism is being invoked in the context of a passionate plea by Banks for a crackdown on welfare spending, rather than compassion. Compassion is to be reserved for the rich and powerful,who have so much further to fall. The guilty verdict – and the criminal offending that triggered it – is also apparently regarded by the Herald as being just another of the curve-balls that public life will throw at you “out of nowhere” from time to time. The problem it seems, is that Banks has set himself such very, very high standards:

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.

Amazing stuff. Yet before we switch off the John Banks soap opera, it’s worth recalling the backdrop to this sordid affair. Banks has been found guilty of deliberately falsifying a key aspect of the electoral system of local government for personal gain. The Police, who were so zealous in pursuing the cameraman who recorded the Banks/John Key “cup of tea” recording in Epsom, didn’t want a bar of pursuing Banks on this matter. It took a private prosecution to even begin to bring Banks to rights. While under the shadow of this prosecution, Banks was still able to sit in Parliament and cast a crucial vote that enabled the SkyCity convention deal to scrape through Parliament.

Yet no one, from Banks on downwards, has shown any sign of having done anything that deserves repentance. Or done anything that requires corrective action say, by the Police with respect to their politically weighted use of their prosecutorial powers. On RNZ this morning for instance, Jamie Whyte, the new leader of the Act Party, seemed too dim to grasp that there could be anything wrong with the Act Party’s sole MP continuing to sit in Parliament after being found guilty of a serious offence. If you can get away with it on a technicality, a mystified Whyte seemed to be saying, why wouldn’t you?

Sheesh. The wonder is not that so many people don’t think its worth bothering to vote. It is more surprising that so many of us still do.

Just One Of The Guys
Classic rock structures can still be revitalised. Jenny Lewis, the former lead singer of Rilo Kiley, has been making strong, completely individual classic rock music for years now, as a solo act. This new track from her about-to-be released album The Voyager, deals with a personal issue – the ticking of the biological clock for women, the not-so pressing issues of ageing for guys – with a nonchalance that only underlines the sense of gendered injustice. Plus, and for comparison, here’s her terrific version (from a few years ago) of the old Travelling Wilburys/Roy Orbison classic “Handle With Care”.