Key Points:

When Margaret Wilson became the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives, it took her colleagues some time to get used to addressing Madame Speaker instead of Mister Speaker.

For the woman who once said she never had a "plan" because her generation was told the good jobs were for married men, it is no doubt of some satisfaction that her replacement, Lockwood Smith, now has to deal with the occasional "Madame Speaker".

Now the former Speaker is one of four people in the New Year Honours to be made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit - the country's third-highest honour.

Ms Wilson and her former Labour colleague Steve Maharey both received honours for their contribution during their time in Parliament.

Both have returned to academia, Ms Wilson to Waikato University's law school - where she was a foundation dean and professor before becoming an MP - and Mr Maharey to become vice-chancellor of Massey University, where he was once a lecturer.

Their legacies as MPs have altered New Zealand's political landscape.

As Attorney-General from 1999 to 2004, Ms Wilson introduced the new Supreme Court as the country's highest court, replacing the Privy Council.

"As I and others probably expected, regardless of the criticism at the time it's gone extremely well," she says.

"All legal systems take time. The most important thing is to have an authoritative voice to create legal precedent that is relevant to the circumstances New Zealanders face."

As Minister of Labour from 1999 to 2005, Ms Wilson was also responsible for the overhaul of workplace laws in the Employment Relations Act.

She also drove the law change giving all couples equal property rights, rather than simply the married.

In her nine years in Government, Ms Wilson also had stints as Minister of Treaty Negotiations, Courts and Commerce.

Mr Maharey - made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit - has a concrete reminder of the measure he considers his greatest achievement during his 18 years in Parliament (nine of them in Cabinet).

In a frame on the wall of his new office is the law - complete with the Governor-General's signature - that introduced Working for Families, a gift from staff at the Ministry of Social Development. "It's not just a piece of legislation," Mr Maharey says. "It represents to me the high point trying to address that issue of fairness. That's what I was in politics for."

Mr Maharey held a variety of ministerial portfolios during his time in Parliament - including broadcasting, housing, tertiary education, youth affairs, Child, Youth and Family, and science and technology.

His first - and largest - portfolio was social development, from 1999 to 2004. He was Minister of Education for his final two years in Cabinet.

Mr Maharey said the honour was an acknowledgement of the staff who made policies a reality.

* These are the last honours under the former Labour-led Government.

Former MPs Paul Swain (Labour) and Clem Simich (National) are appointed Companions of the Queen's Service Order.

Former Auckland journalist Mike Rann, who is now the Labour Premier of South Australia, has been made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to New Zealand-Australian relations.