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Bigotry and barbed wire: John Banks revisited

Fri 17 Sep 2004 In: Features

Banks, Behind the Mask. Author: Noel Harrison Publisher: The estate of Lyndsay Rae Gammon: 1946-2004 Excerpts selected and edited by with the permission of the author. We have chosen to present some of the book's contents which have a direct bearing on the lives of glbt New Zealanders, based predonimantly on one chapter, titled "Homophobia." Many other aspects of John Banks' life, aspirations and relationships are covered in the book, including his relationships with politicians, Christian political parties, women and with the Police when he was Minister of Police. Harrison writes: This is the untold story of a politician who has for for more than 20 years attracted national attention as a purveyor of extreme views - an angry morals campaigner who became a media favourite, an entertainer. I have tried to explain his motivation, and his disturbing behaviour. He has described himself as an obsessive-compulsive personality... Interviewers and political opponents have noted his sudden mood swings, his anger, frustration, impatience and intolerance. He has admitted to feeling paranoid, to feeling that he has to protect himself from hidden dangers. His career illustrates again how easy it is to fool lots of people all the time, to create myths and legends... turn the House of Representatives into a laughing stock. And to astonish 82% of Auckland City voters who woke up one morning in 2001 to find he was their new mayor. Banks built his public persona on how he rose above what he claimed was his early bleak life to become a shining example of good triumphing over evil. But much of his past is opaque... The story I uncovered of his early years simply did not fit with the myth of a deprived childhood. On the contrary, it was very ordinary, very similar to that of many other young New Zealanders, certainly till he was 14. He was raised by a loving aunt and uncle for almost all that time, believing he was their son and bearing their name. He was not a foster child moving from pillar to post and going to numerous schools. Why did he apparently change his attitude toward the Homosexual Law Reform Bill in 1986? [Based on research and personal knowledge] the Bill's promoters thought he would be supportive, yet he became fiercely antagonistic. What did Winston Peters, the leader of New Zealand First, mean when he threatened in 1997 to reveal what Banks had done in Queensland? Why does he offer so much support to Auckland's gay community members after he reviled them for almost 20 years? In 1986, when the Bill reached its final stage, he described it as evil. (NZPD 9 July 1986) He said that this “day will be remembered as a sad and sickening day for New Zealand. A very black cloud tonight, and those members who wheel themselves through the doors of the Ayes lobby to vote for legalised sodomy at the age of 16 should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. particularly as the family unit in New Zealand is under siege. (ibid) The following year, after the bill had passed and he was 40, he married. When he announced his engagement he was asked why parliament's most eligible bachelor, who had said he was earning around $250,000 a year before becoming an MP, had not married sooner. He replied: “Because I wasn't old enough, I never had the time, and i simply didn't have enough money.” (NZ Herald, 3 December, 1986) Asked after his marriage if he had mellowed, he said yes. And he still carried on his campaign, not just against homosexuality as a social evil, but against individuals. In 1988 he asked a formal question in parliament about a senior public servant charged with performing an “offensive act in a public place.” (NZPD 14 June 1988) He continued to ask questions in such a way as to identify the man even though his name had been suppressed. When the armed forces ended a ban on homosexuals Banks, as Minister of Police, said he would “rigorously oppose and move in parliament that opens the door to the police for trans-sexuals, bisexuals and transvestites.” NZ Herald, 8 December 1992) His stance drew the attention of property magnate and sometime newspaper columnist Bob Jones, who commented: “Banks has some odd foibles such as his apparent fear of fairies.” (Northern Advocate 26 December 1992) He said that whereas some parliamentarians could convey their views in a moderate manner and avoid causing offence, “Banksy turns it into a circus. He should be careful, for they might turn on him.” Jones described some famous champion boxers who were homosexuals and said: “I mention all of this out of concern for Banksy's welfare for underneath his homophobio [sic] hysteria, I know trying to come out of the closet is actually a pleasant chap.” (ibid) ...Banks' extreme views on many issues, but particularly homosexuality, made him one of the most despised politicians in New Zealand. Some homosexuals feared he could use his political power as Minister of Police to gain information and persecute them. They believed the combination of Banks and John Jamieson, then Commissioner of Police... and seen as a narrow fundamentalist Christian... was particularly ominous. He condemned homosexuals as unnatural sexual deviants and condemned their "'filthy and loathsome' practices". he said "The problem with this homosexual business we've now made legal in his country is that so many of these creeps have now boldly crept out of the wardrobe and parliament is soon going to legislate... to allow sexual deviants or people with sexual alternatives to work... with immunity." (Dominion, 10 June, 1993 This attitude caused confusion a year later when Paul Sheriff, a former National Party election candidate and a member of the party's research unit, was crowned Mr Gay Wellington. According to the Sunday News Sherriff worked closely with Banks and helped write his speeches and develop policies. After the passage of the anti-discrimination bill two homosexual law reform campaigners... decided to give posies of pink camellias to MPs who voted for it. And, they thought, John Banks might appreciate a much redder posy, including big, blousy "drama Girls, of his own." When it was handed over in his parliamentary office, as police officials were waiting to meet him, this is what happened according to a report in the Dominion: "Banks seized the flowers, ushered the coppers to one of the Beehive's few openable windows, and instructed them to bear witness as he hurled them into the chill Wellington afternoon." Earlier in 1994 Banks claimed that he had never been opposed to homosexuals as human beings. "I'm only critical of their unhygienic and un-Christianlike sexual behaviour." (Dominion, 21 February, 1994) But his relationship with new MP, Chris Carter, who spoke of his homosexuality in his first speech in 1994, suggested deeper feelings. Carter told me in 1994 that on one occasion he met banks in a corridor in parliament. "Banks looked startled when he saw me, stopped, and turned to face the wall till I'd passed. I said hello but he didn't reply." This physical and emotional revulsion was in sharp contrast to the response of Graeme Lee, another MP who voted against giving homosexuals full citizenship rights. Lee, a committed Christian, was at no time personally antagonistic to Carter or anyone else. [In 1996] Banks, as Minister of Tourism... strongly opposed his own Tourism Board's policies of encouraging Sydney gays to visit New Zealand, saying they brought health and social risks to the community. By 1997 Banks had mostly but not completely given up. He conceded as much during a television interview. (60 Minutes, 6 April, 1997) When Janet Wilson asked him if he would try to repeal laws on homosexuality if he had the power, he said he would not: “You can't go back.” He said he did not want to see one sector of the community discriminated against - a complete reversal of his earlier moral stance. Journalist Steve Braunias reported one of Banks' comments in a 2000 article on the Broadcasting Standards Authority. To a [Radio Pacific] "caller who said that a six-inch piece of barbed wire should be put up the rectums of sodomites, he [Banks] responded that it was a waste of perfectly good barbed wire." (Listener 6 May 2000) [But later in the year] Banks told express readers "I respect you for who you are as a human being and a brother of mine. I don't hate anyone... If I had strong views about anything or anyone in the past, I would never want it interpreted that John Banks hates someone." (express, October 2002) When express mentioned his initial adverse reaction to Chris Carter in Parliament... he said: "I want to be judged on what I do and not necessarily on what I say..." [As a long-professed Christian] Banks had difficulties with such basic concepts as turning the other cheek, loving his neighbour, respecting his mother and father, not taking the Lord's name in vain, showing compassion toward the poor and the frail, not envying his neighbour's property... not amassing treasure on earth - that sort of thing. For a few years his mantra was God, Queen and Country. He demanded that people turn away from wimpish ideas of consensus, contrasting this with the conviction politics of the new right. He said he was nailing his colours to the mast and called on people to follow him like the prophets of old. Banks said that his greatest fear on leaving [national] politics was that he “may be replaced by some weak, wet, pink liberal” and all his efforts, his fights, might be for nothing. When asked how those pink liberals would fare on Judgement Day, he said: "Oh, they'll be judged as good people. I mean, in God's house, there's room for everybody. I'm a very forgiving person. I hate no one in this world." (Metro April 1998) Which Banks was the real one? Who can say who he'll be tomorrow? Noel Harrison; - 17th September 2004    

Credit: Noel Harrison;

First published: Friday, 17th September 2004 - 12:00pm

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