Time to revamp honours system

00:12, Jan 04 2014

Is the New Zealand honours system just so much flapdoodle?

Not entirely, but it sure could use some adjustments.

The question is raised each year as more worthies join the elite ranks of the honoured, but this year the question has a little more piquancy with the elevation of former Christchurch mayor Bob Parker to Knight Companion of the NZ Order of Merit.


For those, like me, still grappling with the new system, this is one of the biggies, just two under the NZ Order of Merit, which is restricted to 20 living persons, and one under the Knight/Dame Grand Companion of the NZ Order of Merit.

Anyone just skimming this might not pick up the difference between the latter two and it is easy to miss the "Grand" in the No 2 award, which is one of the problems with the system.

The conferment of one of the top honours to Parker is said to have thrown the whole system into doubt.


Parker has been lauded for his frontmanship in the aftermath of the earthquakes but such duties don't strike me as being a great test of a leader.

You might remember a certain Peter Whittall making a good job of fronting all the press conferences after the Pike River disaster.

If Parker deserved a gong at all it should have been for his grasp of the minutiae of local issues, his dedication to the job and his extraordinary fluency and sense of occasion.

But the failures over which he presided - the buck must some stop somewhere - should have disqualified him from top honours.

A bitterly divided council, rampant favouritism, council assets being under-insured, a chief executive dropping a crucial ball and bad commercial decisions are not exactly the sort of record deserving of national recognition.

However, any sort of honours systems is going to throw up some interesting and contentious selections.

You sort of hope certain criteria for each honour exists and someone goes along and objectively ticks the boxes.

However, we all suspect this doesn't happen in every case and that sometimes it helps to have influential friends in Government and sometimes such friendships are helped with large donations to particular political parties or causes.

We all know people who should get national recognition for their work, achievements or selfless service and never do.

Or we might think such honours should be reserved for people who have particularly hard lives but still make time for others. Or those who make a great fist of staggeringly bad luck, remaining cheerful and upbeat.

Instead the honours are often a reward to people who have really just done their jobs or who have got plenty of goodies out of life already.

Silliness is also an issue. In this year's list, a Queen's Service Medal was, for instance, awarded to Sister Loyola Gavin for services to gardening and Robert Walker picked up a gong for services to heavy haulage.

But my beefs with our honours system are mainly that there are still too many and they still sound a bit ridiculous.

And second, in their current form they are exactly what an egalitarian country heading toward a republic should be avoiding.

The Prime Minister's Honours Advisory Committee said the new honours system was "consistent with the egalitarian character of New Zealand society and enlivens and enriches it".

I can't see how they enrich and enliven, but leaving that aside for another day, they are definitely not consistent with New Zealand's egalitarian character.

Any fundamentally hierarchical system, that makes certain successful and caring individuals knights and dames and obliges people to call them "Sir" and their wives "Lady", is the very antithesis of egalitarian.

Any true egalitarian would turn down such honours and many, I am sure, do.

Those that accept the honour often make it worse by trying to spread the credit so as to appear egalitarian.

Parker, for instance, said the honour was "very much a team thing" and former High Court judge Lester Chisholm (Companion of the NZ Order of Merit) said his gong should be shared by the many people involved in the justice system.

Come on. The function of the honours is to highlight individuals.

The use of the repetitive and old worldy language is confusing. If we are going to take ownership of the system we should introduce Kiwi down-to-earthiness into the honours lexicon.

I don't mean we should have a "Top Bloke" or "Top Blokess" category but something like Notable New Zealanders instead of all the medieval knights, companions, members and officers.

I'm not suggesting we should stop honouring deserving people.

But if the honours are to continue to mean something to more than a geriatric fringe we need to pare them down and fix the vocabulary.

And many people are just going to have to be satisfied with a pat on the back and the inner glow produced by a job well done.

The Press