Stripping Brierley of his knighthood – what the Prime Minister was told

Work is underway to judge whether Sir Ron Brierley’s guilty plea to possessing child sex abuse material is enough to strip him of his knighthood.

Officials who are expert in the honours system have detailed the process for doing so in an email to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office when Brierley was first arrested.

Brierley pleaded guilty to possession of child sexual abuse material at a Sydney court hearing this morning.

It immediately brought fresh calls for Brierley to have his knighthood stripped, or for him to resign from holding it.

Ultimately, stripping Brierley of the knighthood would be Ardern’s call.

Emails released through the Official Information Act show she would be called on to advise the Queen that Brierley should lose his knighthood.

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That is a move that would come after advice from the Honours Unit in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The Honours Unit is the specialist team inside the Cabinet Office, staffed by public servants expert in the arcane-seeming world of Queen’s honours and awards.

Their role is to provide neutral and solid advice to the Government – an expertise on which they were called to provide when news of Brierley’s arrest was first made public.

Emails released through the OIA show the Prime Minister’s office was immediately bombarded with questions about Brierley’s knighthood.

In response, Rachel Hayward – Deputy Secretary of the Cabinet – told the Prime Minister’s office there were a series of triggers that could cause Ardern to ask the Queen to cancel the knighthood.

Her advice was not specific to Brierley but in response to questions about his knighthood.

She said triggers included a situation where “an individual’s actions are such that, if they continue to hold that honour, the honours system would be brought into disrepute”.

Examples included “situations where the holder of an honour is sentenced to more than three months in prison” and “the offence involved other disgraceful conduct such that public opinion would consider it wrong for the offender to hold a Royal honour”.

The OIA response showed the Prime Minister’s office had received multiple emails calling for Brierley’s knighthood to be removed.

Barrister Denise Ritchie, founder of the Stop Demand group named for its objective of halting the sex trade through reducing those seeking it out, said the guilty plea made the process to remove the knighthood straightforward.

Ritchie – who referred to Brierley as “Mister Brierley” – said the criteria had been met and the process to remove it should begin now.

“Young lives have been irreparably damaged as a result of this predator’s behaviour. This is an abhorrent trade in the rape and molestation of children that is fuelled by male demand. It should be denounced in the strongest terms.”

She said Brierley could get ahead of the process by resigning his knighthood. “In such a case the Queen would be informed, with no further action needed.”

Brierley entered guilty pleas to three charges and an additional 14 charges were withdrawn.

“My client admits he is in possession of some of the images,” his lawyer, Lisa-Claire Hutchinson, told the Downing Centre Local Court, saying there was a dispute over the actual number of images on Brierley’s devices.

“The figure, which is particularised on the charges that have been certified and committed for sentence, is in dispute. It is the quantum of the images.”

Brierley, 83, appeared in court with two lawyers, a security guard and no one else. Looking frail and walking with a cane for support, his lawyers did the talking.

The case was set down for a fresh hearing on April 30, although it was unclear if that was when sentencing would take place.

After the brief hearing, Brierley donned a surgical face mask before leaving the court. He did not answer questions about his plea and left in a chauffeur-driven car waiting outside the court complex.

The three charges to which he pleaded guilty relate to child sex abuse material seized from devices Brierley had in his possession when stopped at Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport in December 2019, and material found during a search of his waterfront Sydney mansion.

The search by the Australian Border Force followed a tip in August that year to New South Wales police.

One charge to which Brierley admitted identified the offending material as including images of children ranging in age from 2 years through to 15 years.

Comment has been sought from Wellington College, which has benefited from Brierley’s philanthropy and has facilities bearing his name.

Brierley was preparing to board a flight to Fiji when he was stopped by Australian Border Force officers.

It led to searches of devices at the airport and nearby Mascot police station, and at his mansion in the exclusive Point Piper suburb.

Brierley has been on bail since his arrest, with the same conditions continuing after his guilty plea. Those bail conditions have allowed him to stroll nearby Double Bay and drive around Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

The Herald recently identified that Brierley still appeared to have internet access with an email emerging from him sent in February 2020.

Brierley has enjoyed a towering role in Australasian business for decades. It was a rise that began in the 1960s as he built a business identifying and then buying into asset-rich companies that offered low return to shareholders.

By the 1980s, Brierley’s business had extended beyond New Zealand to Australia, and then on a global footing through the 1990s and onwards. In 1988, while chairman of the Bank of New Zealand, his contribution to business and philanthropy led to a knighthood.

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