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Herald on Sunday editorial: Look hard at our 2013 Queen's honours

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David Shearer has suggested the New Years list be postponed to Waitangi Day. Photo / Duncan Brown
David Shearer has suggested the New Years list be postponed to Waitangi Day. Photo / Duncan Brown

The honours system could greatly be improved by less quantity and more quality.

Queen's Birthday means one thing besides a holiday: It brings an honours list. The nation will wake tomorrow to learn who has been brought to the Queen's attention - well, to a committee of ministers in Wellington, anyway - for commendation.

There will be new knights, one or two of them familiar names that now and forever will be notably different. Sir John Kirwan sounded slightly strange at New Year. Now it is fine.

Tomorrow's list is bound to feature a rugby name or two, and business identities. It is, after all, a Government creation and reflects the party in power. National's lists have a corporate, legal, agricultural and sporting flavour, Labour's prefer cultural and community work.

But some things never change. Judges will be honoured, and senior public servants, and veterans of Parliament who have recently vacated their seat.

The parties can be magnanimous at times like this. Nothing becomes a government as much as honouring an old opponent.

Yet the twice-yearly honours lists need not be drafted by government officials and approved by a panel of ministers. The job could be given to a politically neutral body that could assess nominations from the public and make recommendations directly to the Governor-General.

They are, after all, "royal" honours and the Governor-General is the vice regal representative. The position carries the constitutional monarchy's obligation to act on the advice of the elected government but an exception could surely be allowed for the national honours.

Labour Party leader David Shearer has suggested the honours be transferred to Waitangi Day, which sounds like a thoroughly good idea. The national day needs meaningful events to move some of its focus from our founding Treaty and our fraught colonial history. Nothing could be more fitting than an honours list of contemporary citizens whose contribution to the country deserves particular recognition.

Shearer suggested the New Year list be postponed to Waitangi Day but there seems no reason the Queen's Birthday honours could not go the same way. There is no need for two lists a year. The honours system could greatly be improved by less quantity and more quality.

Too many names on every list look to be there on the basis of longevity in an official position rather than exceptional service. Too many positions, especially the senior judiciary, carry an honour as high as a knighthood as of right.

If the title is given to compensate lawyers for the loss of their earning power in private practice, it seems superfluous to the judicial honorific they also receive. Knighthoods mean something special to the public, as evidenced by the fate of the previous Government's attempt to abolish them.

Some of Helen Clark's senior ministers knew she was making a mistake and John Key knew he was on a winner when he promised to restore them. It is just a pity they now overshadow the Order of New Zealand that officially ranks as our highest national honour.

But the ONZ has been compromised seriously by the failure to restrict it to 20 living members as intended, and by the calibre of some of those selected. Admissions to the order should be rare and deserved beyond doubt.

Nobody wants to debate the merits of individual recipients of any national honour but nobody gains when any are achieved too easily or automatically. Shorter lists are better lists and ours could be very much better.

- Herald on Sunday

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