Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Knight title reveals Cullen's true colours

71 comments
MP's acceptance of knighthood slap to colleagues who abolished them and out of keeping with NZ's Asia-centric future

Newly knighted Michael Cullen is trying to laugh off his wife Anne Collins' refusal to become his "Lady". He says she comes from "a good Irish Catholic background which does have a somewhat different view of these things". Joke all he likes, Ms Collins obviously has a more evolved view of the hierarchal British class system than Dr Cullen, who remains trapped in the glories of the monarchy he was inculcated with in his formative years as an English schoolboy.

Sixty years on, the one-time Pommy migrant remains a creature of his past every bit as much as his wife. Even when he tentatively whispered his support for New Zealand becoming a republic at a conference on the subject 18 months ago, Dr Cullen was admitting "a certain emotional attachment to the monarchy". He recalled that as a 2-year-old he'd waved in the street "at the present incumbent on her wedding day", and six years later watched her coronation live on television.

As the deputy prime minister in the Clark Government that abolished the royal honours a decade ago, Dr Cullen's attempts to deflect any mocking of his acceptance of his royal title by joking about his wife's Fenian DNA is understandable. But it's avoiding the point. There's plenty of us with no Irish blood who find both the restoration of knighthoods under the present Government, and now Dr Cullen's acceptance of one, a step backwards into Nostalgialand.

For Dr Cullen, it's also a two-fingered salute to his former leader, Helen Clark, and his Cabinet colleagues who together ushered in a 21st century honours system which, for a short while at least, did away with the old imperial mumbo-jumbo.

After the restoration back in 2009, the unseemly rush of 70 or more old judges and politicians and businessmen to replace their non-titled honours - awarded under the Clark Government - with a mass-produced Knighthood or Dameship was crass and risible enough, I had hoped, to devalue the system beyond repair. Silly me. The lust to lord it over others and have the title to rub it in runs deep in some.

Sir Michael now says he would like to see some consensus about an honours system that was more specific to New Zealand but has no ideas how that could be achieved. Now that he has scored his gong, that is. If he's serious in his quest for a more indigenous honours system, doesn't he recall there was a home-grown non-titular system in place until 2009 which he helped usher in?

As for the task of shedding ourselves of the British monarchy, the Jubilee celebrations in Britain - though interestingly, not here - have pushed that issue deep into the too-hard basket of most politicians.

In Sir Michael's "modest approach" to the republican issue, he backed what I've long thought was the most sensible of solutions. That is to set up the mechanics to ensure that when the present Queen dies, the New Zealand ship of state sails calmly on but with the incumbent governor-general at the helm, not Prince Charles or Prince William. Legislation should be in place in readiness for that day, to avoid "an unnecessarily pressured situation at that time since the British would have declared Charles III king immediately on her death".

To avoid all the divisive debates about the merits of one presidential system over another, he suggests sticking with our present system, with the "president" having the limited powers of the present governor-general, exercised on the advice of ministers, and selected by "some kind of super majority of Parliament".

In his speech, he feared his "modest proposal for change has a low chance of success simply because too many of those who favour republicanism carry with them a large amount of other constitutional baggage". Meaning they want directly elected presidents and the like. He could be right. But to me, the main reason this debate hasn't advanced in New Zealand is because senior politicians like himself have not embraced the issue, and taken a leadership role, with the exception of former National Prime Minister Jim Bolger.

If, instead of backing the existing system by accepting a knighthood, Dr Cullen had begun promoting his "modest approach", those with "constitutional baggage" would hopefully be swept to the fringes by the sensibleness of his "do little" approach.

Most of us have grown up with the Queen as head of state, safely in her place in Buckingham Palace, as permanent as the sun and the moon. It no doubt made some sense when New Zealand's role was the supplier of food and fighting men to the motherland. But at the end of her reign, in an era where our future is bound up with Asia, the concept of a new head of state, who must be Anglican, and preferably a male, oh yes, and comes from an English farming family called Windsor, is just barking mad.

On the other hand, before she goes, I wouldn't object to our radio and television news people doing a crash course in the Queen's English. Since when has ceremony been pronounced "CereMOANee," and monarch, "mon-NARK?"

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

Read more by Brian Rudman

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 22 Dec 2014 10:57:19 Processing Time: 603ms