Key Points:

As always at this time of the year, we honour New Zealanders who have given outstanding service to their communities or otherwise achieved great things in their chosen fields such as science, the arts and sport. Looking over the list, we can all take satisfaction in knowing that this country produces some outstanding people, whether they be working towards medical breakthroughs, winning gold medals or simply giving something extra to their communities.

From the highest to the lowest, recipients of these awards and honours can themselves look back over a long history and know that by being so recognised, they join a select and worthy company. However, the awards are sometimes tainted by the suspicion that the dictates of politics in particular cases contribute more than any objective consideration of service or achievement.

That suspicion is fuelled by the knowledge that the decisions on whose names will be referred to the Queen for recognition are made by the Prime Minister and a Cabinet committee. On this week's list, the last of the Clark Government, a number of people have received high honours even though it is hard to see what special service they gave to the nation over and above the jobs they were paid to do.

Former Speaker of Parliament Margaret Wilson - Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit - and former Cabinet minister Steve Maharey and former State Services Commissioner Dr Mark Prebble - Companions of the Order - all played prominent roles in the period of the Labour Government but it can hardly be said they achieved great things beyond what is expected of people who take on such roles.

Indeed, Wilson was ineffective as a Speaker and Prebble, as the country's top public servant, failed to deal firmly with ministerial pressure being applied over staff appointments in the Environment Ministry. It is hard to escape the conclusion that such honours are given partly for merely occupying a particular job and partly for services rendered to a political party rather than the community as a whole.

To allay such suspicions and to make the honours system fairer and more acceptable to most New Zealanders, there has to be a better, apolitical way of making selections. Happily we do not have to look far to find one.

In both Australia and Britain, the selections are now made by independent committees. In Britain, the committee's recommendations are passed through the Prime Minister to the Queen. In Australia, the potential for political interference is reduced even further with recommendations bypassing the Prime Minister altogether and going direct to the Governor-General.

Not only is the taint of political honours removed but these systems potentially make better selections in specialist areas. For instance, in Britain there are eight specialist subcommittees which consider nominations in the arts, sport, health, science and technology, among other things.

The Key Government would do well to consider following the British and Australian leads but the presence of an Act representative on the Cabinet honours committee does not augur well. Despite cultivating the image of an anti-sleaze party, Act's insistence on this position in the coalition arrangement suggests that when faced with reality, the possibility of rewarding supporters with honours is just too tempting.

Which is a pity. Much as the honours system is valued, it has never quite recovered from the former Government's decision to abandon titles such as knights and dames. These titles were thought to be redolent of the English class system and not appropriate for an egalitarian country such as New Zealand.

The argument was never wholly convincing. But what seems certain now is that the egalitarian version has not caught on as well as was hoped. Moreover, it is not likely to while the public sense that some appointments are political or simply matters of form. What is needed is a system that is thoroughly independent and that recognises outstanding contributions rather than just time served.