The Key Government's reinstatement of knighthoods in 2009 created a thorny issue for members of the previous Administration. Prominent figures in that three-term Labour Government would, in the normal course of events, be likely to see their service recognised in the next few honours lists. But how could they accept the very titles that they had abolished with such a cavalier disregard for popular opinion? Readily enough, and rightly enough, in the case of Michael Cullen, one of four new knights and three new dames created in today's Queen's Birthday honours list.
Sir Michael, the Deputy Prime Minister from 2002 to 2008, will undoubtedly be criticised for his acceptance of the title. At a first glance, there may seem some reason for this. He was, after all, an important cog in the Clark Administration, and, subsequent to his career in politics, has played a significant role in propelling a debate on whether New Zealand should become a republic. This seems hardly the stuff of a knighthood.
But first impressions can be misleading. Sir Michael has revealed to the Herald that he was a dissenting voice in the Labour Government's decision to abolish knighthoods. Further, during his three decades in politics, he voiced no opinion on the likelihood of a republic. Subsequently, describing himself as neither an ardent monarchist nor a converted republican, he has talked of "a certain air of inevitability about a drift towards a republic". At a constitutional conference two years ago, he commented that the monarchy seemed increasingly irrelevant to young people, in particular, and floated the idea of changing to a republic when the Queen dies.
Such comments are not particularly outlandish. The dwindling interest in royal visits to this country says much about people's perception of the head of state not being a New Zealander. Sir Michael was, in effect, saying what many were thinking. His profile on this issue was acknowledged last year when he was appointed to the group set up to gauge public opinion on this country's constitutional arrangements.
All that might suggest some degree of dissonance in Sir Michael's title. But it is important to note that it is not related to his life after Parliament. In his case, the knighthood was offered in recognition of service to the state. On that basis, Sir Michael is a worthy recipient. As the Minister of Finance from 1999 to 2008, he presided over a generally healthy and resilient economy. Nonetheless, he was astute enough to recognise the need to save for the inevitable rainy day ahead, and often said as much. Regrettably, some of those good intentions were undone by increased spending on the likes of interest-free student loans and Working for Families during the Clark Government's last term in power. Sir Michael also served the country particularly well as the Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, accelerating progress on a number of key settlements.
Several prominent politicians, including former Prime Ministers David Lange and Jim Bolger, have turned down knighthoods. They never detailed their reasons. Helen Clark, the first elected woman Prime Minister, might have decided such an accolade is at odds with her principles. However, Sir Michael's political career, studied in isolation, undoubtedly merits a knighthood.
Unfortunately, a similar note of authenticity cannot be accorded the Duke of Edinburgh's elevation to the Order of New Zealand. This is a jarring intrusion in what is supposedly the country's highest honour, limited to 20 living citizens at any one time. If there is a misstep in this year's honours list, that is indisputably it.