No-siree! Silence reigns over gong-refusal

KIRSTY JOHNSTON
Last updated 05:00 17/02/2013

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Names of New Zealanders who have turned down a royal honour will not be made public because the Government believes it would "undermine" the integrity of the system.

The Cabinet has declined an official request for a list of refusers' names - including those who have since died - a decision that was supported by the public watchdog, the Ombudsman.

Critics say the decision is yet another example of the lack of openness in the honours system and have called for the process to be moved outside Parliament.

"The secrecy in terms of who's turned down what is ridiculous," said Lewis Holden, the chairman of the New Zealand Republican Movement.

"We fear there's a lot of politics going on behind the scenes as to who actually gets an honour. If it's really about honouring New Zealanders then it should be transparent."

It is believed - from previous figures released - that as many as 10 per cent of nominees decline to receive a knighthood or become a member of a lower order.

Some of those have turned down honours include author Maurice Gee, former prime minister Jim Bolger and former secretary-general of the Commonwealth Don McKinnon, who revealed in a biography last week he twice refused an honour because he did not believe in the imperial system.

The Sunday Star-Times applied for a list of those who refused a royal gong in the belief the system should be subject to the same scrutiny as other official processes.

The British Government was forced to release a similar list of honours-rejecters last year - which included figures such as singer David Bowie and writer Roald Dahl - after its Information Commissioner ruled the system was robust enough to stand up to scrutiny, and found it was in the public interest to disclose the information for honours rejected before 2000.

New Zealand's public watchdog, the Ombudsman, on the other hand, said it believed releasing the names would "damage public interest".

It said because the honours are awarded in an exercise of prerogative power "the process should be free as possibly of litigiousness, recrimination and inappropriate comparison".

Michael Webster, Acting Clerk of the Executive Council, said protecting the confidentiality around nominations was essential to maintaining the system's integrity.

The Star-Times, in its request, did not ask for the reasons given for the refusals, but many of those who have publicly declined an honour did not agree with the imperial or "titular" system - where recipients are called "Sir" and "Lady" - which was scrapped by Helen Clark's Government in 2000 and then reinstated by John Key's in 2009.

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McKinnon, now a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, said he first declined a knighthood in 1999 "as I had been supportive of the review and eventual abolition of titular honours in New Zealand".

He declined once again, before finally accepting the Grand Cross directly from the Queen for his work with the Commonwealth, an honour "not tied to my country".

Bolger, a well-known republican, declined because he "didn't believe in knighthoods".

Others have previously accepted a honour but shunned the title that went with it, such as author Patricia Grace.

"It just wasn't important to me to be known as a dame," she said. "I thought that when [titular honours] were not being given, that that was a good step towards us having our own system."

Several commentators have called in the past for another overhaul of the honours system.

Among them is Labour leader David Shearer, who said this week that it was "worth considering" that instead of having politicians decide who is recognised, an independent panel of prominent New Zealanders is set up to select the candidates, as they do for New Zealander of the Year.

The Sunday Star-Times will lay a complaint with the Ombudsman this week.

See the Cabinet secretary's letter here http://static.stuff.co.nz/files/Cabinetletter.pdf

- © Fairfax NZ News

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