Honours list spurs divided feelings

The annual Queen's Birthday Honours list induces in your columnist a case of split personality.

Why on Earth do we still, in the 21st century, kowtow to an imported system of privilege, class, honour and wealth governed by hereditary principle and arguably impervious to strict claims of merit?

That goes against the egalitarian grain. And isn't such as system also open to the claims of political patronage, favouritism or fashion?

At another level - an emotional, perhaps culturally imprinted one - aspects of the pomp, circumstance and tradition associated with it all seem worth having.

This year, to make matters worse for my dual disposition, there were elements in the awards that only highlighted the divide.

If the point of these lists is to recognise, reward and elevate citizens for their outstanding contributions to society in their respective fields of endeavour, for their "service" to the community or country, this is a good thing. For in today's individualistic, get-ahead-at-all-costs-and-bugger-the-consequences world, altruism seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur.

The "public good" has itself become an endangered species. So anything that interrupts or contests the notion that there is more to life than wealth or self-centred personal gratification, has to be welcomed. Spiritual fulfilment is one bulwark against this preoccupation; artistic or cultural work is another; and then there is "community" or "society" for which the concepts service and the public good provide glue.

So if we are to have such awards, must they be allied to the British monarchy and all that it represents?

The answer to that is, of course, "no", but ...

From 1848 to 1975, we shared the British honours system. For two decades from 1975 there was a mix of British and our own system. Then in 1996, the honours list was largely "New Zealandised" with the introduction of the New Zealand Royal Honours System, comprising the Order of New Zealand, the New Zealand Order of Merit, the Queen's Service Order and Medal, and a series of gallantry and bravery awards.

In 2000, the then Labour-led administration, under Helen Clark, abolished the titles of Knight and Dame Companions, then in 2009 National reinstated them. One minute the sirs and dames were gone, the next minute - or to be more precise, the next decade - they were back.

The problem with getting rid of the titles was that the honours system did become a little opaque. The reintroduction or knights and dames gave the list back a bit more "pull" on the public imagination. Few of us are untouched by the cultural overlay of such titles, the centuries of history, tradition and associated mythology.

Which is a rather long-winded way of getting round to saying that it really does mean something to most people when a rugby-playing one-time butcher's apprentice from Mangere, south Auckland, with a history of mental health issues, becomes a "sir".

It is a mark of how influential has been his contribution towards destigmatising mental health issues, that the few short years ago when Sir John "J.K." Kirwin "came out" as having suffered from depression, it really was still a significant and debilitating condition.

By talking about it, writing about it and fronting campaigns, Sir John, the heroic flying All Black winger, has undoubtedly made a huge difference to the lives of so many New Zealanders. We can never know this for sure, nor put numbers to it, but it is a sure bet that by giving people afflicted by depression such a positive role model, for giving them hope, he has enriched, even saved, many lives.

His honour is indicative of the power for good of such awards.

Like any system, though, its credibility does depend on its overall application. A nice irony to see Sir Michael Cullen, part of a government that abolished the title, elevated as reward for long and distinguished political service - and a sop to those who insist the list is always somehow a plaything of the current administration.

But if there was a note of disquiet to be found in the list it was a tendency for a significant number of the honorees to have in common - as an acquaintance pointed out - a claim to fame through appearances on television or in the pages of the women's magazines.

Nigel Latta, Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, is a tirelessly energetic TV presenter, shows promise as a stand-up comedian and is no doubt a hard-working clinical psychologist, but in any of these fields there were surely more deserving and worthy recipients - unless "fame" is becoming pre-eminent among the criteria for such honours.

And if it is, once again the head begins to take issue with the heart.

- Simon Cunliffe is a Wellington writer.