Labour Is Talking About The TPP Heaps.

I am not a trade economist, and all I know about international trade law owes to having spent a rainy weekend in a bach with some under-stimulated lawyers. So there’s no attempt to evaluate the TPP on the merits here. I’m not qualified to do so, and even if I were everyone’s made their minds up already. So here’s an inside-baseball, horse-race classic.

Little has clearly formed a strong view on the merits of the deal and he doesn’t think it’s good for New Zealand. That’s an improvement on the previous vacillation, which had the effect of alienating both supporters and opponents of the deal. However there remain issues with the articulation of this view, some owing to the previous attempts at compromise.

Noticeably, Labour has not articulated an economic argument against the TPP. Instead, Labour has committed to the sovereignty argument. This leaves Labour open to attack from the National party for adopting impractical, ideologically driven position instead of accepting trade-offs in the national interest, a line of attack that echoes pre-existing voter concerns and reinforces Labour’s perceived weakness on economic issues. It also ignores the fact that for many voters concrete issues of economic security trump even emotive issues of sovereignty.

The failure to ensure that Shearer and Goff were on board with the new policy was a major failure of political management. Shearer and Goff are senior figures in the party with past, present and future responsibilities for implementing foreign and trade policies. They are major stakeholders who should at least be able to accept party policy if not agree with it. Their dissension was predictable and deeply undercuts both the credibility and the effectiveness of Labour’s stand.

It is unreasonable to expect a spokesperson to front a policy they see as deeply irresponsible, unprincipled, and unrealistic. However, by the same token, if Shearer wished to disagree with party policy he should have resigned from the shadow cabinet and done so from the back benches and he can hardly be surprised about the inevitable consequences. Goff is running for the Auckland mayoralty as an independent. At this point, he will feel both a principled duty to back a policy he believes is in Auckland and New Zealand’s best interest, and a pragmatic wish to make it clear he is his own man and not beholden to party bosses. It is frustrating this wasn’t better handled, and the choice of Shearer and Goff to break with the party is disappointing.

But more importantly than the details of the positioning on this issue, is this issue one which will propel Labour closer to victory in 2017? Should Labour be talking about the TPP so much?

A Herald Digi-Poll from September 2015 indicates that 31% of New Zealanders disliked the TPP, while 23% support it, but in December 2015 that same poll had shifted to put support on 27% and opposition down to 26%. But that leaves a substantial 46% in both polls who either don’t know or don’t care. In reality, a bare majority of the public have an opinion about the TPP, and the vast majority of them will be ideological votes who have already have made their minds up how they will vote in the next general election. These are not even voters who have arrived at a view but are unlikely to allow it to change their votes — as might be the case about the flag — but are voters who simply don’t care enough to arrive at a view. They are deeply uninterested.

The chunk of voters who are uninterested in the TPP will tend to be the non-ideological voters that Labour needs to win over, and they are the voters who will be most turned-off by displays of division and poor management. Further, the political conversation is finite. Every time Andrew Little talks about the TPP, or caucus indiscipline, he is not talking about another issue. Given that the TPP does not appear to be a significant issue for near to a majority of voters it does not seem to be a particularly good use of a limited resource.

If you look at Key over the last fortnight, he has successfully negotiated two tricky issues in a way which has probably increased his popularity – the signalling of his likely departure in the latter part of his fourth term, and his backdown on the Auckland city rail link. Both these issues had the potential to become difficult for him, but he has either neutralised or exploited them in a manner that will have appealed to centrist voters as pragmatic and effective. Labour, by contrast, has devoted huge time and energy to an issue primarily of interest to ideologically driven voters who are by and large already committed to supporting or opposing the party, has highlighted internal division in so doing, and passed up opportunities to talk about issues of broader relevance to voters.

Māori representation in local government and Pākehā liberals.

Submissions on the mixed-model Canterbury Regional Council Bill were heard yesterday, and there was a lot of pākehā liberal surprise that Ngāi Tahu back a mixed-model council, even beyond the next term. In many ways this follows on from earlier liberal surprise that the Māori Party would be backing the Bill, which lead to the surprise that Ngāi Tahu supported the Bill. (Ngāi Tahu’s views being particularly important in the context that the Māori Party will be the swing votes for this legislation, and the party’s kaupapa suggests that Ngāi Tahu’s views, as the iwi most directly affected, will play a substantial role in their voting behaviour.)

In all honesty, it’s not really a big surprise that Ngāi Tahu weren’t huge fans of the elected Regional Council, and nor is it a big surprise that they would advocate a model which places them on an equal footing with central government.

There is, however, some interesting friction here in that traditional liberal thought flinches at any allocation of voting rights on anything other than a one-person one-vote basis, while liberal pākehā are also (ostensibly) committed to the Treaty relationship and iwi governance partnership. While the Māori/General Roll system for House elections is an unusual system, within each Roll voters remain allocated to geographically defined constituencies of equal size using the same voting system as each other. Similarly, the Māori ward system preserves those features at a council level, where it is used (Bay of Plenty Regional and Waikato Regional Councils). Māori wards are also a very difficult structure to implement: only one Council, Waikato Regional, has used the Local Electoral Act provisions to introduce them.

As Ngāi Tahu’s lobbyist James Caygill points out, Māori wards are not iwi representation. Iwi representation will generally have the characteristics that it is non-geographic (i.e iwi membership is not determined by the physical location of voters) and non-proportional (i.e it is unlikely iwi representation will directly reflect the number of iwi members as a proportion of the population of the authority.)

In the Te Arawa Partnership model, Te Arawa elects an independent Board which then nominate members to council committees, including voting members for the Strategy & Finance and Operations & Monitoring committees. The Te Arawa Partnership is therefore non-geographic and non-proportional. The nominees are appointed by the elected members, and the Council is not bound by committee recommendations.

There are precedents for non-geographic constituencies. They were a feature of the British Commons until 1950, in the form of the University constituencies. There is also a great deal of precedent for disproportionate representation of communities of interest at the local government level in New Zealand. The Banks Peninsula ward of the Christchurch City Council is half the size of the other wards in order to better represent isolated rural communities, as is the Stewart Island – Rakiura ward of the Southland District Council. From a liberal perspective these appear anomalous, and personally I have my doubts about them, especially given the tendency to over-represent whiter, richer rural areas — a sort of country quota for our local government. Nonetheless, they are a feature of our local democracy and do ensure that certain kinds of community are represented when they otherwise would not.

Ngāi Tahu argue that as they hold mana whenua in the Canterbury region, the Treaty relationship indicates they should have a direct voice at the Council table. But, as Ngāi Tahu also observe, iwi representation is not Māori representation. Does the Treaty partnership call for non mana whenua Māori to be represented at the local government level? How can this be accomplished alongside mana whenua representation? In Auckland, the Independent Māori Statutory Board represents mana whenua and other Māori (mātāwaka) with specific positions tied to mana whenua and mātāwaka, while in the future Te Arawa will look to build mātāwaka representation into their structures for the purposes of the Partnership. The IMSB has had difficulties implementing urban Māori representation, and Willie Jackson is challenging certain decisions in the courts, while Te Arawa have not yet revealed how they will achieve this.

These are hard questions, particularly when put alongside dominant pākehā traditions that value geographic constituencies of equal size. Liberal pākehā need to be more aware of the complexity of these issues: “Māori wards” are not the answer to every question of representation, and may in fact be actively unwanted by iwi. At the same time, iwi representation does raise difficult legal and political questions. Canterbury Regional Council will only have full members appointed on an iwi basis as a result of an ad hoc Act, and it is unlikely that other councils would be able to act in a similar manner. There are also real questions about how the legitimacy and authority of members appointed on such a basis will be managed within the context of a political system that presumes legitimacy derives primarily from direct election by the residents of a district.

As Māori seek to take on an active partnership role in more aspects of government, these questions will keep coming up in relation to major urban authorities, with significant political responsibilities. In order for representation and governance models to be sustainable, they will need to enjoy broad based support. Resolving these questions proactively and effectively will be an important part of successfully transforming rhetorics of Treaty partnership into governance realities at the local authority level.

The author is the chair of the People’s Choice in Christchurch, but the views expressed are entirely personal.

How Many Members Does The Labour Party Have?

Jim Anderton, in his short response to Corbyn’s election as UK Labour leader, talked about the 100,000 members the Labour Party had back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I have my doubts about the veracity of that figure, I will be honest.

But it got me thinking: how many members does the Labour Party have at present? This is a more complicated question than it seems at first sight, because there are different ways to be “a member”, both formally and informally. Formally, every member of an affiliated union is a member of the party, which (depending on how reliable you think the public membership figures of the unions are) gives you an affiliated membership in the range of 70-80,000.

However, putting the affiliates aside, various officials will give figures somewhat north of 10,000 for the current membership. Apparently around 6,000 people voted in the leadership election in 2013 which is consistent with a membership then of 8,000 and some solid growth since then. So I think we can say reasonably safely that the party has around 10,000 direct members on paper.

Of course, the party’s membership figures are always going to be an approximation, because the internal databases are archaic and slow-moving (membership processing times are measured in weeks if not months) and are dependent on the data fed to them by constituent organisations. This data is likely to have errors, be they unintentional (duplicating a member’s application under a slightly different name) or intentional (fabricating members in order to increase voting allocations), and the party doesn’t have the resources to rigorously check for irregularities.

Further, people will move into and out of the formal membership without, perhaps, changing their view of the party as such. Rather, at some points being a member will be more important: they wish to vote in a leadership election, a preselection, or a branch needs more members to boost their voting allocation. Under Clark, these formal membership-based processes tended to be less important, and they have monotonically become more important since then. Therefore, even if people’s views on and enthusiasm for the party haven’t changed, we should expect to see an increase in the membership.

There are some other figures we can work out more roughly. No one will hold this information centrally, because the party doesn’t have the reporting structures to allow it to do so.

There are, supposedly, some 300-500 constituent organisations (branches, electorates, sectors, regions, local government committees, etc etc) within the party. In my experience, it is difficult to find someone to chair every organisation that exists on paper. There is, I suspect, about one person willing to take organisational responsibility for any given constituent body. (On average, and across the party: there will be much local variation.) This means that I think we can say there are at most some 500 people actively involved in the administration of the party. This aligns with the supposed size of Fraser House’s office-holder mail outs.

Another figure that is perhaps interesting to think about is the number of people who will volunteer for the party. This is a much more fluid category, which people will move into and out of rapidly, and there is no paperwork associated, or any effort made at centrally tracking this figure. So a lot of this calculation is supposition, and should be thought of as a rough estimate.

We’ll use election day volunteer numbers as a rough guide, as they represent a peak effort. We’ll break it down by electorate. First, let’s assume that electorates with a Labour MP involved have somewhere in the vicinity of 150-250 people available on election day. This figure is based on my experience across several electorates on several election days. Then let’s think about non-Labour electorates. I would suggest that such an electorate will be doing well to have 50 people involved on election day, and many would have far fewer — perhaps as low as 20. If we take a rough average on those figures, and say that a seat with a Labour MP associated will have 200 volunteers, and a seat without 30, and we then say there’s 30 seats with a Labour MP associated, and 40 without, we have (30 * 200) + (40 * 30) = 7,200. Somewhere around 7,000 sounds like a plausible figure for peak mobilisation of volunteers, although it should be taken with extreme caution.

Must Labour Lose?

The Labour Party is in a bad way: it has lost three general elections in a row, it lacks unity at the top, its traditional support base is eroding under the pressure of rapid societal transformations, and it is seen as a party for the poor and old that does not provide space for aspiration.

The year is 1960 and we are in Britain.

Must Labour Lose? is an analysis of the British Labour Party in the late fifties, based on a detailed social survey carried out in the aftermath of the 1959 election. The loss in the 1959 election was the third straight loss for the party, following defeats in ’51 and ’55. Must Labour Lose? is in three parts: the first – by Mark Abrams, a market researcher – discusses the survey data, the second – by Richard Rose, a social scientist – discusses voter behaviour in more general terms, while the third part is a brief commentary by Rita Hinden, a Fabian and then-editor of Socialist Commentary.

Large chunks of the book are eerily familiar, both in detail and in overall thrust. It is interesting to note that the debates about the use of empirical analysis of voter attitudes do not appear to have moved on in the half-century since 1960. The oppositions of poll-driven cynicism against unworldly quixotism remain the terms of our own debates.

The details are sometimes painful in their similarities: ‘The Party concentrated upon an expensive policy document […] The producers of this pamphlet apparently assumed that all their potential supporters were utilitarian or ideological thinkers, carefully checking up on dozens of Labour policies to make sure that they were suitable. Transport House could hardly have reflected upon how many Labour voters would understand a pledge such as: “the next Labour Government will help to stabilise commodity prices which determine the livelihood of many undeveloped peoples, by negotiating long-term bulk purchase agreements”.’ Only 18% of Labour supporters thought it had a “united team of top leaders”. “Often the Labour party has followed the difficult task of hewing the stones to fit a preconceived plan, a task further complicated because some of the masons are inclined to use their mallets on each other instead of on the stones”. A Labour Party effort to win the votes of “non-voters” has failed to show great success.

But merely trawling the book for obvious echoes is superficial. There is a more profound similarity. Abrams argues that the Labour party is identified with values that are not the values of contemporary Britain. Previous assumptions about the working classes’ identification with the Party are breaking down as society changes. Within this changing social system, the party is unable to formulate and articulate a compelling set of values that align with the values of voters. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have marked out a space as an aspirational party aligned with British values.

Looking forward, Hinden answers the question “Must Labour Lose?” with a curt “Yes, it must – at least in the near future”. We now know, of course, that the 1964 general election brought a victory for Harold Wilson’s Labour—in some measure due to Wilson’s adoption of a progressive focus, arguing for the need to look at the future of work, particularly automation, and the Party’s need to adapt to the society that – famously – would be “forged in the white heat of the technological revolution”. This is a useful caution against the tendency to histrionic pronouncements of the “death of Labour”.

But against this optimism, Abrams’ Part I finishes with a worrying suggestion: “there is among young people today a complex of barely conscious Conservative sympathies which still have not fully expressed themselves in overt party affiliations.” One aspect of this is that young people felt that if Labour was the party of the working class, the Conservatives were the party of scientists. In the 1959 election, a young middle class research chemist was elected to Parliament. If the British public saw the Conservatives as the party of those who got ahead, of scientists, and of British traditions, Thatcher would be the leader that welded those Conservative sympathies into two decades of Conservative hegemony, as that cohort aged through the population.

Must Labour Lose?, Mark Abrams and Richard Rose with commentary by Rita Hinden, 1960, Penguin, Harmondsworth. Quotations from, in order, pages 92, 17, 67, 96, 119, 58.

Progressions

Apparently Phil Quin, Josie Pagani, Stuart Nash, Nick Legget, and some others want to start a think tank called “Progress”, which might, supposedly, endorse candidates. (Yes, yes, there will be inevitable jokes about think tanks containing Stuart Nash) Predictably, and with all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, Greg Presland at the Standard has compared this to the Douglas-ite Backbone Club.

I can’t see why the supposed think tank is at all controversial. Quin, Pagani and co share a certain vision for the party. They want to advance this vision by advocacy; in order to advocate more effectively, they’ve decided it would be best if they formed a collective to amplify their voices. Those are all good left-wing principles.

Now, obviously Nash has to be careful. Unlike in the UK, where Progress, Compass, Socialist Campaign, and the Tribune Group are able to operate with MPs taking a significant role, New Zealand’s stricter expectations of caucus discipline probably constrain Nash from heavy involvement in a group that might disagree with official party lines. But individual rank and file members of the party shouldn’t have to worry about maintaining strict adherence to the party line, as long as they make it clear that they aren’t speaking on behalf of Labour, and avoid simply running the party down.

In the long run, of course, the Labour Party is a democratic(-ish) institution. If the membership disagree with the ideas “Progress” advocates, then they can vote them down. This might require left-wing members of the party to articulate ideas of their own and organise to get them into policy, and to support and develop candidates of their own. This would also be a good thing, particularly from the point of view of the left of the party.

The Labour Party under Clark was almost entirely devoid of ideological disputes, as a way of repressing the unresolved issues of the 1984-1993 era. Internal party elections were fought purely on personalities and factional allegiance in the worst sense of the word. This lack of internal ideological structuring meant that when, in the post-Clark era, the party was forced to develop novel political strategies, it lacked the intellectual armoury to do so. Internal decision-making still avoided any fundamental ideological component, and devolved into crude factional struggles based on patronage networks. The routes to advancement within the party did not reward the development and articulation of political theory or policy, but were instead dependent on patronage and personality.

Particularly frustratingly from a left-wing member’s point of view these patronage networks, which generally maintained lip service to the notion of “left-wing Labour” or a “true-red Labour”, allowed centrist, or even right-wing, careerist politicians to position themselves on the “left” of the party without in fact making any commitment to left-wing principles or policies.

An internal debate between left and right offers an opportunity for the party to move away from a purely patronage based model of internal organisation. This can only be good for the party as a whole. In particular, it offers an opportunity for the left of the party – which, after all, maintains that it is the largest grouping – to organise, proffer coherent and attractive ideas, and support strong candidates.

Why Labour Did Not Did Not Win

There’s a lot of analysis about “why Labour did not win”. (Short answer: it was heavily overdetermined.) But this is about just one reason that is not why Labour did not win, one thing that almost certainly made no difference to the result: hoardings.

There’s various theories about Labour’s hoardings, ranging from the true – Vote Positive was a weird choice for a message – to the somewhat kooky – apparently we should have plastered David Cunliffe’s face over everything, as if voters might have somehow forgotten he was leader – to the utterly crazy – the claim that Auckland MPs were hiding party vote hoardings on back streets. These theories, of course, are always delivered with complete certainty.

But there’s a fundamental problem with these arguments: hoardings have very little effect on the outcome of elections. Hardboiled American political hacks have a stock phrase for this: “signs don’t vote”. It’s not quite fair to say they don’t do anything – seeing a neighbour’s fence with a candidate’s face on it does matter, because it’s an endorsement from someone in your community, someone who’s part of your broader social milieu. But a large billboard at the roadside? It just doesn’t make much difference. As an Auckland friend of mine sarcastically puts it, “I always make voting decisions based on what corflute on the street tells me”.

There’s some academic research to back this up*, and smart American practice is shifting this way. So, overall, if your theory of Labour’s loss relies on poor hoarding design or display, it is not a load bearing structure.

* Which I’m too lazy to look up right now, sorry.

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How Labour Should Change

Labour is out of touch. It had too much policy, and the leader was unable to explain to everyday New Zealanders just what the consequences of those policies would be. Major spending promises were seen as opportunistic and unrealistic, while important taxation changes weren’t seen as credible. The overall narrative was trapped in negative opposition, without ever articulating a coherent positive vision for the nation. The party itself lacks members, lacks skilled activists, and is continually short of money.

This is a description of the New Zealand Labour Party from, roughly mid-2007 to now. The details change, but the overall picture doesn’t, and the result remains the same: electoral underperformance.

There are, of course, various proposals floating around at the moment aimed at turning around this decline: Phil Quin or Micheal Wood or Lew Stoddart’s or …, and in due course, the Party’s own review recommendations. These proposals are all valuable, even if they do have a tendency to reflect the author’s own preoccupations – not that this article doesn’t.

But we’ve been here before. We had exactly the same problems at the last election, and we had a review, and we made changes, and yet here we are again. Why? I think there’s two important points: firstly, and somewhat fatalistically, Labour is not entirely in control of it’s destiny – there are external factors that matter, and it’s important not to overrate the importance of those things we can control. But those external factors, important as they are, have to be put to one side. Labour needs to focus on those things it can control.

Secondly, the NZLP is deeply resistant to change. Institutionally, it is hugely conservative. So at the last review, a series of big, important changes were put forward: campaigning hubs, women-only shortlists, direct member involvement in selections, creation of a supporters register, party-wide election of the leader, reformed policy making processes. Some of these changes happened: we have a democratic process for the leader, we have a different policy process now. Some didn’t: the supporter’s register, women’s only shortlists, direct member involvement in selections. Some happened, but never really clicked – campaigning hubs.

If the NZLP is serious about change, it needs to start by being committed to change. At present, far too often, the party refuses change. The institutional structure has too many veto players, and the culture of the party is too conservative and insular. The governance structures of the party are weak, and too dominated by factionalism and patch protection. Too often, the party is dominated by heavily institutionalised members who have been there for a very long time, protecting fiefdoms that are increasingly irrelevant and out of touch. This doesn’t mean jumping for every change possible, but it does mean acknowledging that previous efforts at reform have been stymied by excesses of caution and conservatism.

Christchurch Central Selection

Nominations close for Labour’s Christchurch Central candidate today, and so far two people have publicly put their name forward: Tony Milne and James Dann. I know both of them, and they’re both top blokes who’d make great MPs.

Central is a very winnable seat for Labour. Boundary changes, even a slight nationwide swing towards Labour, and an aggressive, solid campaign could result in a Labour pick-up. However, even with those factors, it will remain very marginal.

Tony Milne is a party stalwart, if you can be a stalwart when you’re in your early thirties. He’s been involved in Canterbury Labour circles for the past ten or so years, including a stint working for Tim Barnett in Parliament, as well as heavy involvement in several key campaigns. Outside of the party, he’s active on queer issues, and was involved with the campaigns for civil unions and marriage equality, and is currently employed by the Problem Gambling Foundation.

James Dann (who also blogs here) is a very smart guy, with a touch of the showman. He’s got links to the transitional city folks, has a top-notch twitter account, and good relationships with media figures. The most important thing James brings to the table is a really serious engagement with the post-earthquake environment. His blog has been one of the key sites for analysis and critique of what’s going on in the Christchurch rebuild.

The selection is in just over a week’s time, on the 8th of March. At the moment, I would say that Milne is the front runner. However, whoever gets selected, I am sure we’ll hear a lot more from both these candidates.

Edited to add: I understand the third candidate is Gavin Smith. Will update with the nominee when we know who it is.

Further edited to add: Tony Milne was selected — congratulations!

The Policy Implications of Lorde’s Grammy Wins

So Lorde’s won Best Song and Best Pop Solo Performance at the Grammys. This isn’t really a blog post about that as such: instead, it’s a shameless attempt to use this as an attempt to talk about cultural policy, because I think it is important to acknowledge the extent to which policy choices created the space within which Lorde has been spectacularly successful. Lorde hasn’t received direct state support, but has benefited from a series of policy choices. Chris Finlayson will no doubt tell you it’s all part of a #goldenage, but if it is, it is not one he has had a great deal to do with.

The first, and absolutely most important position (both as government policy, and as a societal ideal) is feminism, for reasons which, I am sure, don’t need elaboration.

But there were also more specific state choices. By the time Joel Little received his Grammy nominations, we’d spend $370,000 of NZOA money on his previous two projects, Goodnight Nurse and Kids of 88. (And let’s be clear, if you’d told me that Goodnight Nurse were incubating a future Grammy winner, I’d have laughed and laughed and laughed.) That state funding, quite apart from the value we got out of Goodnight Nurse and Kids of 88’s music, helped make sure that Joel Little could have a career where he ends up co-writing Royals.

When Labour came into office in 1999, we had made noises about a policy of introducing a youth radio network to sit alongside National Radio and Concert FM. In the end we didn’t implement it, choosing instead to trade it away for a voluntary NZ content quota on commercial radio. The NZ quota helped, along with the direct NZOA support, to protect an ecosystem, to sustain a New Zealand music industry. This meant that when the opportunity came along, there were professional, skilled people in place who could capitalise on it.

In future, what conclusions can we draw? Well, there’s the importance of nurturing and protecting developing artists, and making it possible to move through viable career paths. But I think the most important take away is that bold arts policy works. If you had asked what the point of the fifth Labour government’s music policy was, a teenage girl from Devonport beating a creepy rapey man from Hollywood to a Grammy with a song about inequality and cultural distance would definitely be one of the answers. That’s not to say that you can make Lorde happen by shifting levers in the Ministry of Culture and Heritage — but you can make Lorde possible, and more likely, that way.

The Honours List

There’s nothing really happening in New Zealand at the moment, so I thought I would write about one of the guaranteed news stories of the New Year, alongside youths behaving badly and the weather: the honours list. The list, as it always is, is a mixed bag. Too many lawyers, local body politicians and rich people, but on the other hand, services to ecclesiastical embroidery and hand knitted lace design make a welcome appearance — and why does Mary Harris only rate the QSO?

Left wingers tend to ignore the whole thing, as it seems a rather frivolous and mostly pointless exercise in Establishment self-congratulation. For us, a man’s a man for a’ that. And that’s fair enough — but we still shouldn’t desert one of the more prominent marks of official respect to a collection of fusty monarchists and preening, would-be lords. Instead, what would a progressive honours system look like?

Firstly, there’s a fair bit of administrative tidying up we could do, starting with the elimination of the monarchical basis of the system. At present, we maintain the absurd fiction that the Queen is the fount of all honour in New Zealand, and graciously bestows honours on her most loyal subjects. (This has the unfortunate side effect of leaving the honours system tied up with the royal prerogative, and subject to executive willfulness.) Instead, let’s put the honours system on a democratic basis, with a clear legislative underpinning that makes it clear that the people of New Zealand are the fount of honour, not the monarch. And that includes the removal of knighthoods and dameries — which, apart from anything else, are currently absolutely incoherent aspects of our system: Jim Bolger holds our highest honour, and isn’t a knight, but Michael Cullen holds a lower honour and is. Because PC. Or something.

As part of the legislative underpinning, we should establish a transparent, non-Cabinet process. In other Commonwealth realms, the decisions around honours are made by independent committees of civil servants and representatives of civil society. In New Zealand, it’s a group of Cabinet ministers. There’s no reason we couldn’t have a transparent and independent process here.

And let’s have more radicalism. The honours system talks about who we are as a nation. It’s a way of expressing our national aspirations. And so let’s try and push the honours system away from a backpatting exercise for the establishment, and try and challenge ourselves with our honours. Ed Milliband’s choice of Doreen Lawrence for a peerage was a great way of using the stodgy system against itself, as well as a due recognition of a commitment to justice just as real, and just as important, as any Judge of the High Court. We should look at the honours list and feel challenged, not smug.