Arise, Sir Douglas

What defines a man's life? Is it the titles he holds, the wealth he accumulates or some other symbol of status that his contemporaries hold in high esteem? And how do we decide if those symbols of status are still deserved?

John Key has announced that Sir Douglas Graham will retain his Knighthood, despite his conviction for making false statements in a company prospectus becoming final. This is, on balance and considering all aspects of the issue, a good thing.

I should state at the outset that I'm not a huge fan of knighthoods or other fuedal honourifics. I also think that if we're going to have them, they are on occasion given for the wrong things. I'd like, for instance, to see a few more foster carers, foodbank managers and volunteer firefighters becoming "sirs" and "dames", and a few less retiring high-ranking politicians or judges, much less sportspeople, get the nod.

But having said that, Sir Douglas was accorded the honour for doing something very good for the country. As Claire Trevett outlines here, his work on the initial Treaty Settlements with Ngai Tahu and Tainui in the face of some considerable disquiet from his own side of the political aisle laid the path to where we are today: a place where an end to settlements of historic grievances is in sight, and we can move on to the question of how we are going to live together in the here and now. That was a display of the best that we want to see in our political leaders; real Statesmanship, in which the long-term interests of the country were put ahead of short-term political advantage.

That legacy seems worthy to me of our respect. And if that respect takes the form of bestowing the title "Sir", then I can live with it.

Nothing about Sir Douglas' subsequent fall from grace changes that assessment for me. Whatever the "bad" about his involvement in the collapse of Lombard Finance - and let's remember, the offence for which he has been convicted is one of ommission and not commission, and would no longer be a criminal matter if it occured today - it does not undo the "good" of his life as a whole.

(For anyone interested, the question of how "bad" we ought to view Sir Douglas' ommissions was scrapped over in this post by Tim and the subsequent comment thread.)

Yes, I recognise that the failure of Lombard Finance caused a lot of financial pain to a number of ordinary New Zealanders. And yes, I recognise that Sir Douglas' negligent approach to disclosing the true financial state of the company contributed to that pain. And yes, I recognise that at least some of those hurt by the collapse may have put their trust in the company because of the reassurance his name (and maybe even title) provided.

For this, he will be punished. Whether the punishment set down by the Court of Appeal (six months home detention, 200 hours community service and a fine of $100,000) is appropriate is something that the Supreme Court will tell us in time.

But to add to that punishment by stripping Sir Douglas of his knighthood would be to add a wrong to a wrong. So I'm glad it won't happen.