Former TVNZ news boss Bill Ralston is giving Auckland super-city candidate John Banks advice on how to appear more appealing to voters.
In a three-hour private training session last week, Banks was advised to change his shirts, talk more often about his tough childhood and be "chattier" if he wants to win the super-mayoralty in October.
Last week's training from Ralston and his wife Janet Wilson – who together run a media consultancy company – is believed to be the first formal session Banks has received in his 33 years as a national and local politician.
If the husband-and-wife team succeed in changing his image, it will be the second transformation of Banks in recent years.
He won back the Auckland City mayoralty in 2007 on a pledge to tone down his hardline right-wing politics that had seen him condemn gays and celebrate motorway-building.
Despite this, Banks has still not quite shaken off his wooden, preachy, bolshie public persona. He continues to rant, lapse into sarcasm, repeat himself, ask journalists if they are writing things down, and constantly fires up when central government intervenes in Auckland issues.
But now he plans to unveil himself as a friendlier beast.
The Sunday Star-Times was not allowed in to Tuesday's training session, but understands it included advice to be more chatty (Banks has been accused of being "robotic" when he talks); to wear open-necked shirts so he looks less like a banker; and to speak up about his tough childhood.
Banks told the Star-Times through a spokesperson that wearing a suit had been drilled into him as a politician and "now I realise I don't have to". He said he might have more media training on a "needs be" basis, possibly closer to October's election.
So far his only confirmed competitor for mayor of the new super-Auckland – an amalgamation of eight councils looking after the roads, rates and rubbish of 1.4 million people – is Manukau City's mayor Len Brown, a well-regarded leftie who is so comfortable with the public that he sometimes raps instead of talks. Auckland Regional Council's left-wing chairman Mike Lee and right-wing deputy chairman Michael Barnett are rumoured to also be considering the job.
Banks-spotters have already noticed a change in his behaviour in recent months as he turns himself into what a source calls "Banks the person, not Banks the politician", but as he takes on the advice of Wilson and Ralston, it is likely he will ramp it up.
It is generally known that the former National Party minister has a rags-to-riches story, has adopted three Russian children with his wife Amanda, likes fast cars and gives Wellington politicians short shrift; but insiders say Banks has been advised to be candid about some of the grittier details of his life.
They say the public will hear about the times, long before a career in restaurants and bars made him rich, that Banks slept in his car and was broke. There will be more talk of his time in foster homes, and how his alcoholic, criminal parents were jailed.
Banks – who once called gay people "homos" on his radio talkback show, and as an MP in 1993 rallied against the Human Rights Bill on the basis that homosexuality was "unnatural sexual behaviour" – last weekend attended Auckland's Big Gay Out festival. He was accompanied by Ralston, who was overheard telling him to get in a photograph with some children.
Banks was upbeat at the festival, at one point joining a press pack to photograph John Key, as a favour to a festival-goer who wanted a shot of herself with the PM. Then on Thursday Banks was spotted at the opening night of Top Gear Live. There again he appeared camera-happy – trying to persuade a social photographer to hand over the camera so Banks could snap the snapper.
Ralston told the Star-Times he was happy to "out" himself as a member of Banks' campaign team: "John's an old friend of mine." He was charging for some of his advice.
- Sunday Star Times