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.