There is a particular magic in being accorded a formal honour by your country, says Fran O'Sullivan.

What is it in the national psyche that some Kiwis cannot celebrate, if only for a couple of days each year, the achievements of outstanding New Zealanders?

Each New Year brings with it another round of "honours", a vehicle for this very young country to recognise Kiwis from all levels of life who have made a mark in New Zealand, and those from afar who have assisted the country.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark, businessmen Sir Douglas Myers, Lloyd Morrison, John Bongard and Tony Falkenstein, US benefactor Julian Robertson, film-maker Sir Peter Jackson and educationist Dame Lesley Max were among this year's leading lights.

Their achievements are already plain to see. But there is a particular magic in being accorded a formal honour by your country. As Myers mused to the Herald, "Being recognised is a very powerful emotion".

"I got a CBE years ago and I remember going down and thinking what was wonderful about it was the numbers of people from small country towns who'd done public service for a very long time and been recognised and came down to Wellington and had their families with them. I thought it's a very binding social function."

The mainstream media also serve a binding function by not using the honours list as an easy opportunity to reprise all the controversies, skeletons-in-cupboards, and, black-spots that usually accompany lives that are led in the public domain.

Instead, we dwell on the high spots.

Out in the blogosphere it is a different matter. Right-wing blogs are apoplectic over Clark's honour. Some lefties are out-raged that Myers has been elevated.

Both can polarise. But each has made a singular contribution in a world where public policies and ideas should be keenly contested.

I don't personally know Sir Peter Jackson. But I have got to know Clark, Myers, Morrison, Bongard, Falkenstein, Robertson and Max relatively well over nearly three decades in journalism.

What I can say is they are all passionate New Zealanders (Robertson qualifies in my book even though he is unable to hold dual citizenship under US laws). An example: Clark metamorphosed from the Vietnam-era politician, who I first got to know at her parliamentary office in the early 1980s when she fed me copies of anti-CIA material from the Pinochet era, into an international stateswoman who (against the wishes of many in Labour) pursued free trade deals with the US and China because she had been convinced it was in New Zealand's interests. In New York recently I was struck by the humanity she now displays running UN aid.

My first professional recollection of Myers was his thrilling assault on the Wellington Establishment that controlled Lion Breweries. But it was the long game that he and offsider Mike Smith played to get control of the Bond brewing empire in Australia that provided the business headlines for my many articles both here and in Sydney. He didn't just chase state assets like so many of his contemporaries.

Sir Douglas also threw Lion Nathan's corporate weight behind Sir Peter Blake's America's Cup quest and ensured the first World Rugby Cup got off the ground. These days he is passionate about the smart young Kiwis he is sponsoring at Cambridge University.

Clark and Myers have had their very public differences. She made it plain she didn't want to deal with anyone from the Business Roundtable. Myers was frank in response.

But these very public differences did not stop Myers from joining Robertson in putting significant financial support behind her Government's push to get a stronger trading relationship with the US.

Robertson was whacked about by Clark's team for political reasons - but that did not stop him from hosting her in New York, or from donating a major art collection here.

Morrison and Bongard both stepped back from active business careers this year to provide more energy to get on top of cancer. Despite the chemo Morrison still found time to send wonderfully insightful messages back from the US via his Blackberry on the new Obama Administration and the global financial crisis. Now home, he intends to devote more energy to get New Zealand to focus on measurable goals.

I have a soft spot for Bongard, who was too busy trying to save Fisher & Paykel Appliances to attend to his health, and worries about the impact on South Auckland if more factories go.

Falkenstein reacted to a column on growing youth unemployment by chasing up my young respondents with job offers.

Max's compassion for those who have not had educational advantages continues to inspire when I have the good fortune to share a meal. So, join me in celebrating this New Year as a time for reflection and great optimism.

* This column will return on Jan 16.