Scrap the honours

Scrap the honours

The government’s twice yearly awarding of “honours” at New Year and Queen’s Birthday is something most of us have mixed feelings about. We like the idea of recognising those who make an outstanding contribution to New Zealand but we are uneasy about the process, suspicious of political patronage and often enough appalled at the recipients.

Unfortunately our system of honours was not home-grown but imported from the British colonial heartland of the second wave of immigrants. Labour had a go at removing the worst excesses of this colonial hangover when they abolished “Sirs”, “Dames” and references to the now defunct British Empire.

But despite the reforms the honours are still conferred by the English Queen “on the recommendation of her Ministers”.

The Order of New Zealand is now the highest ranking award – limited to a maximum of just 20 living New Zealanders. But despite its fine title it has a barely recognised status and little public respect. It has not been accepted by New Zealanders. Most of us would struggle to name even two or three of the holders of this supposedly prestigious honour.

There are two main problems. Firstly the community has no sense of “ownership” of the award. It was not developed from public discussion or debate but foisted on us after recommendations from a government appointed committee. Secondly the appointment of some of the recipients is either a total mystery or obviously politically motivated. The mysteries include the wife of a former Governor General and what else, other than political motivation, could explain the appearance of Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, Mike Moore or Jim Bolger? Even the trade unionist member of the Order of New Zealand, Ken Douglas, could only ever claim to have made an “outstanding contribution” to New Zealand by working feverishly to undermine trade union opposition to the destructive policies of Roger Douglas.

But the worst politically motivated appointment to the Order of New Zealand would have to be former parliamentary speaker Jonathan Hunt. Despite more than 20 years as an MP and the last few as speaker it seems quite impossible to find what exceptional contribution he has made to this country. Aside from being a time-serving servant of the Labour Party he is remembered as the Minister who split up the Post Office into Telecom, New Zealand Post and Postbank and prepared them for privatisation. And all the while the standard of living of the constituents in his working-class New Lynn electorate deteriorated.

I must confess that whenever I see Jonathan Hunt I’m reminded of the line from an Alexander Pope poem “And wretches hang that jurymen may dine”. In Hunt’s case it should perhaps be changed to “And people pay taxes that politicians may self-indulge”.

The old system was bad enough with knighthoods awarded to those such as Bob Jones and Roger Douglas. Since when has driving tens of thousands of kiwi families into poverty been worthy of an honour?

The government which introduced the Order of New Zealand has repeatedly undermined its credibility. The honour never had a chance to fly and will now never gain public confidence and respect. It should be scrapped. This would be much more preferable than trying to force the false respect of the community onto those who so demonstrably follow agendas aside from the welfare of New Zealanders.

Suggestions have been made that we could perhaps improve things by removing the awarding of honours from a committee of government Ministers and instead establish an outside body to take on the role. However the same problems would surface in different guises.

The heart and soul of our awards system is supposed to be the Queens Service Order and the Queens Service Medal. Here it is that the hard-working unsung kiwi heroes receive some recognition for their dedicated, mostly-unpaid, work in the community. These are not the self-servers of the commercial world, time-serving politicians or self-important political leaders. There is a case to recognise these kiwis, nominated and supported from within their communities, who do work that does not come to national attention.

But even here a credible award system is doomed to fail. Aside from the obviously anachronistic “Queen” in the title, should we really differentiate between parents who struggle valiantly 24 hours a day to bring up children with severe disabilities for example and those who co-ordinate the local “meals on wheels” services?

The discomfort we feel about an honours system is not something we should see as a weakness which we should try to “get over”. In fact the egalitarian principle at the heart of our unease should be nurtured as one of our greatest strengths.

Scrap the honours.