The only thing entertaining about the unedifying scramble for knighthoods and damehoods by the best and brightest of the Helen Clark decade, is the tortured rationalising or embarrassed silence of those who should know better.

All this humbug about doing it for sport, for education, for literature, for the wife. Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear one of them stand up and confess it's all about vanity.

It comes as no surprise that 12 judges are among the 72 who have rushed to trade in their non-titular, made-in-New Zealand honour, for a royal title. The judiciary kicked up rough when the antiquated title system was discarded back in 2000, claiming it was one of the perks of office.

Like el cheapo overseas air travel for retired MPs. Among the new legal knights is retired judge Eddie Durie. Does that, I wonder, make his stroppy lawyer wife, Donna Hall, a Lady?

Putting the judges pay package to one side, what is depressing is the number of liberal, New Zealand nationalists, who, like chooks in the hen house, couldn't wait to accept a leg up from the British Queen to set themselves one perch above their fellow citizens.

People like one-time Alliance politician and Dunedin mayor Sukhi Turner, former Labour minister Margaret Shields, theologian Lloyd Geering, woman's rights campaigner Margaret Sparrow, former Privacy Commissioner Bruce Slane, lawyer and liberal activist Deirdre Milne and pioneering historians of New Zealand's colonial past Judith Binney and Claudia Orange. As well as distinctive New Zealand artists like Robin White and Peter Siddell.

More than 60 years ago, poet Allen Curnow penned his much quoted lines, "Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year, will learn the trick of standing upright here". He was musing on the great moa skeleton in Canterbury Museum and the extinct bird's "failure to adapt on islands".

By inference, he was looking forward to a time when New Zealanders had abandoned the colonial cringe and stood comfortably and proudly in their own South Pacific skins.

The decision in 2000 to drop the archaic, class-based British titles system was a leap forward in that process. Those honoured under the new indigenous awards - my contemporaries - were, I felt, being honoured as leaders in the struggle to stand upright.

They were people I respected. That they could be bought off so cheaply with a bit of imperial frippery both shocks and saddens me. If our cultural leadership can succumb so easily to the temptation to play the British lord and lady, what chance of us ever growing up and standing tall.

New Zealand is one of the world's oldest democracies. It was the first to give women the vote. Surely it's time we acted our age.

In March, when Prime Minister John Key announced the return of knighthoods, it was soon pretty clear he would be knocked over by those rushing to accept. I predicted the resulting investiture risked becoming a Moonie mass-marriage. A hunt by journalists for refuseniks produced thin pickings. Initially only three names emerged out of the 85. I praised them, two writers, Lynley Hairy Maclary Dodd and Patricia Grace and Catholic educator Sister Pauline O'Regan, for refusing the trade-in offer.

Amusingly, Ms Dodd was on my phone when I arrived for work the next day telling me there'd been a terrible misunderstanding. I'd based my back-patting on a Dominion Post front page story quoting her saying she was too old to change her ways. It seems the reporter had tracked down the wrong Lynley, an elderly lady who, rightly confused, said no thanks, she was too old to change her ways and become a Dame. The true Ms Dodd insisted she had not had time to make up her mind. Yea right.

In 10 days, the 72 new knights and dames will file into Old St Paul's in Wellington, tiaras glittering, rented tuxedos scratching, discarding their indigenous honours in the recycling bin as they go in. Is it coincidence that Old St Paul's, with its imperial battle flags, is the closest the capital has to Westminster Abbey.

In a secular, independent nation, surely Parliament's grand hall or Wellington's Town Hall would be more appropriate. And more egalitarian. The Prime Minister said the ceremony would be "a real celebration of success". He added that "I also respect those who chose not to change their status. This is about people exercising their choice."

Yes, but the choice they've made is not any cause for celebration. It's exercising a choice to retreat back to an empire that died with World War II.

The only celebrating I will be doing at the time is raising a glass to the refuseniks, the 11 honorees who have chosen to stand upright in 21st century New Zealand. What a fine proud assemblage of fellow citizens they are: potter Len Castle, writers Witi Ihimaera-Smiler, Vincent O'Sullivan, Joy Cowley, Patricia Grace, academic, writer and veteran stirrer Ranginui Walker, actor, Sam Neill, community worker Sister Patricia Hook, former bishop of Dunedin Penny Jamieson, educationalist Sister Pauline O'Regan and former speaker of Parliament Margaret Wilson.

Mr Key says he's looking forward to congratulating the new knights and dames. I prefer to salute the more select group.