When Prime Minister John Key was asked about the Tuhoe settlement this week, he referred first to Sir Douglas and his critical role in the Treaty settlement process in the 1990s. In the very next question, he had to answer questions about whether Sir Douglas should lose the knighthood he earned for that work as a result of his conviction as a director of the failed Lombard Finance.
His answer to the first question was an indication of how reluctant Key must be to take that step. There are many things to take into account. Although Sir Douglas and his co-directors were convicted for failing to disclose relevant information in Lombard’s statements, the court emphasised that there was no apparent deliberate dishonesty or attempt to profit from it. Thanks to subsequent law changes, now the same issue would be dealt with as a civil case.
I wasn’t aware of that.
Stripping honours for reasons other than traditional crimes, such as sexual offences or murder, or the sanction by a professional body is a relatively new phenomenon sparked by the global financial crisis. The United Kingdom is now going through the process of exacting revenge on those who contributed to that crisis. Bank of Scotland head Fred Goodwin was the first to be stripped of his knighthood. Last month, James Crosby, former head of HBOS, asked for his knighthood to be removed. The Forfeiture Committee is scanning through others to decide whether to take similar action. But even those at the heart of the banking crisis are only having their honours stripped if the honour was relevant to their banking work.
A key point.
Sir Douglas’ knighthood was for his work as a minister of the Crown, most notably on Treaty settlements. His knighthood was for the work he did for New Zealand as a whole. It was as much an acknowledgment of the iwi he worked with as himself. It was Sir Douglas’ careful handling of those initial settlements that gave other iwi the trust to start along the road themselves, a legacy from which Chris Finlayson is now reaping the benefits.
Because it was handled well from the beginning, the settlement process is now one of the most important developments in New Zealand’s growth as a nation.
The risk is that the still-raw anger over the collapse of finance companies will prompt Key, or Sir Douglas himself, into making a decision on political grounds.
On balance, the good Sir Douglas did for New Zealand and its people by far outweighs the wrong he did to those investors.
And he is paying the price for those wrongs – a criminal conviction, and a sentence of home detention and community work.
The trouble is that the wrongdoing and images of Sir Douglas standing in the dock are fresher in people’s minds. The good, and the image of Maori packing out the public gallery and singing a waiata in tribute to Sir Douglas’ work at his valedictory, has become hazy through the passage of time. Tuhoe was a timely reminder of that good.
Sir Douglas managed to resist caving in on politically unpopular issues in favour of doing what was right when he was Treaty Minister. Key should now do him the favour of doing the same.
A hard decision for the PM.