It was reported recently that members of the Monty Python comedy troupe had to get their stage outfits replaced for their pending reunion performances, because in the decades since they last appeared together, their original costumes had been ruined by moths.
There may be a warning here for all those tempted to make comebacks in the hope that they can somehow recapture their old magic. “We’ve destroyed your costumes,” the gods of humour might have been saying, “so that you don’t make fools of yourselves.”
Monty Python’s anarchic, surrealistic humour was a perfect creature of its time, but that was then. The chemistry behind such unique acts is a fragile and transient thing; we should cherish them while they last, but accept that the world moves on. To try winding the clock back is to tempt fate.
It may seem a giant leap from Monty Python to John Banks (or on second thoughts, maybe not). But perhaps a similar folly could be seen at play in the disgraced ex-MP’s determination to linger on the public stage after his time had run out.
Banks entered Parliament in 1981 and served in the Cabinet from 1990 to 1996. For several years he was a polarising talkback host – Banksie, the right-wing champion of the battlers on Struggle St – on what was then Radio Pacific. He went on to serve two terms as mayor of Auckland before being emphatically rejected by voters in favour of Len Brown in the 2010 super-city mayoral election. It was during his mayoralty campaign that Banks fatefully accepted the $50,000 donation from Kim Dotcom that ultimately led to his downfall.
A less vain politician might have taken the defeat by Brown as a signal that his time was up. But in an act of breathtakingly audacious self-reinvention, the unreconstructed Muldoonist underwent a political costume change and reappeared as the Act MP for Epsom. It has surely not escaped him that had he quit the political stage when the voters of Auckland gave him his cue, he would not have provided a means whereby a vindictive Dotcom could use him to strike at his primary target: John Key.
Only Banks can explain what compulsion drove him back to national politics under the banner of a party with which he had little affinity. He might rationalise it as an urge to serve; a conviction that he still had more to give. But a more plausible explanation might be that he couldn’t bear the prospect of quietly fading into the background after all those years in the public spotlight. That desire to remain front and centre might also explain why Banks had been prepared to risk a previously unblemished reputation, at least in terms of probity, by playing fast and loose with the laws relating to anonymous donations.
Whether it was sheer conceit or simply a sense of entitlement at work, Banks was hardly unique in not wanting to relinquish the power and prestige of office. It’s a common enough phenomenon, as attested by the number of former national politicians still drawing on the public payroll in less onerous, but still well remunerated, local government positions. This addiction to public office was neatly captured by Tim Shadbolt’s famous line: “I don’t care where, as long as I’m mayor.”
Laila Harré exhibits obvious symptoms too. The voters roundly rejected Harré and her strife-torn Alliance party in 2002, but she appears not to have got the message. Having migrated from Labour to the Alliance via New Labour, and lately flirted with the Greens, she now seems to have convinced herself that the voters will embrace her in her improbable new guise as leader of the Internet Party. Although poles apart from Banks in terms of ideology, she shows a similar hubris – to say nothing of a chameleon-like ability to assume new political colours when it suits.
Such behaviour can scarcely enhance public faith in politics. The spectacle of politicians desperately clinging to office or scrambling to attain it, even to the extent of opportunistically adopting a new political persona, seems more likely to foster a cynical impression that the interests of voters are too often treated as secondary to the pursuit of power.