Rodney Hide: Time for PM to revoke Sir Douglas' knighthood

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Sir Douglas Graham during sentencing. Photo / NZ Herald
Sir Douglas Graham during sentencing. Photo / NZ Herald

Handing out the Queen's honours must be a good feeling. Taking them back - not so good.

This week, John Key made four new knights and three new dames. He must have found that very satisfying.

He now confronts taking Sir Douglas Graham's knighthood from him. That's not so nice.

The Prime Minister made a good call returning titled honours to New Zealand. I understand Sir and Dame. The letters PCNZM and DCNZM mean nothing to me.

The letters stand for Principal Companion and Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. That's quite a mouthful compared to a simple Sir or Dame. But that's what former Prime Minister Helen Clark put in place when she dumped titled honours.

The new honours never caught on. Key gave the Principal and Distinguished Companions the opportunity to become titled when he reintroduced damehoods and knighthoods.

Seventy-two of the 85 took the opportunity.

It's not hard to see why. Being a Sir or a Dame means something. There's a long and distinguished history backing the titles. PCNZM could be a new and deadly virus, for all I know.

I still carry a childhood view of knights in shining armour. For me, knights are chivalrous and brave, honest and true. They protect the poor and the weak. They have great personal honour.

But the chivalrous knights of legend were made redundant long ago. Kings wanted to wage arduous and distant wars. They needed their soldiers to be fulltime to do so. The 40 days of fighting service knights gave a year was not enough. Plus bowmen and artillery proved deadly against knights in armour. The knighthood lost its fighting status 500 years ago and became, instead, what it is today: an honorific that sovereigns bestow.

But a knighthood carries the respect and status instilled from the stories of our childhood. To be Sir Someone means more than any acronym after your name. Lancelot (PCNZM) and Ivanhoe (PCNZM) aren't the stuff of legends.

So all in all, a return to titles has been a good call.

But darkening the return of knighthoods and damehoods is what to do about Sir Douglas Graham. It jars with our view of knights to see Sir Douglas convicted in court and attacked by pensioners who lost their savings because they trusted in a knight.

Sir Douglas was found guilty in the High Court of "issuing offer documents that expressed your confidence that Lombard had, and would have, sufficient liquidity to meet its obligations as they arose. The reality was that the Lombard Board had serious and constant concerns at the liquidity squeeze confronting the company at the time".

The judge readily accepted that Sir Douglas did not intend to mislead investors but rather fell foul of the law through the "material misjudgment about the extent to which concerns at Lombard's liquidity, and factors materially contributing to that, should have been disclosed in the offer documents".

The court didn't declare Sir Douglas a crook. He didn't set out to deceive. He didn't steal the money.

But people invested in Lombard Finance without Lombard Finance disclosing the full facts of the company's precarious position.

They invested also because heading the company was a knight. The judge at sentencing declared, "Sir Douglas, I am satisfied that your reputation was a very important, and possibly the single most important, factor relied upon by investors in Lombard".

The law that Sir Douglas and his fellow directors broke in failing to disclose fully the company's precarious position has been our securities law since 1978. It's nothing new. And it's serious. Parliament set the maximum penalty for a breach at five years' jail or a $300,000 fine.

The judge sentenced Sir Douglas to 300 hours' community work and ordered him to pay $100,000 by way of reparation. Sir Douglas is appealing his conviction.

The Prime Minister has said he will await the results of the appeal before deciding what he will do about Sir Douglas's knighthood.

Any MP convicted of a crime that carries a maximum of two or more years jail immediately ceases to be a Member of Parliament. That's the law. Sir Douglas would be gone already from Parliament irrespective of his sentence or his appeal.

It was for his service as an MP and as a Minister that Sir Douglas was knighted. The standard the Prime Minister expects of his recently restored Knight Companions of the New Zealand Order of Merit must surely be above that demanded by law of an ordinary MP.

If the conviction stands, John Key has a most unenviable task: he must ask the Queen to strip Sir Douglas of his knighthood.

- Herald on Sunday

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