Honouring honours

Few New Zealanders will begrudge the award of a knighthood to our greatest miler, John Walker CBE, knowing it has been given not just for his services to athletics on a global scale, but for his many community services over 20 years or more, including as a Manukau city councillor but particularly for finding opportunities for young people to engage in sport.

And he has done so despite suffering from Parkinson's disease since the early 1990s.

The other two awards at this level, restored by the National-led Government this year, are also to people whose mark in society is measured by their giving: the arts patron Jenny Gibbs and the Maori teacher Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, both of whom become dames.

In judging who should be the first to receive such honours under the revived system, the Government has chosen with care and has not invited controversy.

The Clark government discarded such titles in 2000, it seems largely on the whim of the then prime minister, Helen Clark, who ill-advisedly called them "titular" honours and seemed to think they represented an hereditary adjunct of the British class system.

Of course they did not, and do not.

They are, in fact, a very inexpensive and well-regarded system of recognising the great many people in the community - most of whom are essentially unknown to the wider population - for their willingness to put themselves at the service of others.

And, certainly, knighthoods and damehoods represent a certain status symbol in some quarters, but more importantly, they are a permanent reminder of service and achievement.

There can be little wrong with that in a democratic country priding itself on its egalitarianism.

Those among the 85 reinstated to the former system still have until the end of June to decide whether to use their titles.

During the Clark government's tenure, there was a notable increase in the number of practising artists, writers and musicians honoured - perhaps a reflection of the prime minister's own interests - but the latest list carries less emphasis on the arts (honours for musician and composer Carl Doy and hip-hop singer Che Fu) and more on sporting achievement.

Thus, among the recipients are Kiwis league coach Stephen Kearney, Coast to Coast race organiser Robin Judkins, netballer Irene van Dyk and former Silver Ferns Belinda Charteris and Margaret Foster, former New Zealand cricketer John Morrison, and Laurie Keats, who instigated the first Golden Shears competition.

Sports broadcaster Murray Deaker also appears on the list.

There is also a quota of what might be termed - in the kindest possible way - plainly eccentric choices: the man who complained to the police in 2002 over Helen Clark signing a painting she did not create, Wellington anaesthetist Graham Sharpe is made an ONZM; Christchurch's wizard, Ian Brackenbury Channell, is given a Queen's Service Medal; and the only living claimant to the Waitangi Tribunal claim which asks for exclusive and comprehensive rights to indigenous flora and fauna, as well as all Maori cultural knowledge, customs and practices, including language, Hana Romana Murray, is made a companion of the NZOM.

Now, having cobbled together a distinctive combination of the democratised system and the restored older titles, the Government needs to take two further steps, and it should do so before the next New Year's Honours are announced.

Whereas people carrying the titles of "sir" and "dame" have a permanent public brand or trade-mark of their achievements simply in the titles, and are far more likely than most to be given opportunities to wear their decorations at formal occasions, there is little encouragement to enable the public routinely to know that their less highly honoured fellow citizens have also been recognised by the Queen.

Virtually all countries with honours systems in Europe, for example, also give recipients a gratis and discreet lapel badge or ribbon, which recipients may wear on an everyday basis if they so choose, and without embarrassment.

In this country, similar badges were made available for past and present recipients from 1996, but they are hardly widely worn and the Government ought to do what it can to encourage the custom.

At the same time, it should be routine for all official correspondence to honours recipients to carry their proper title in the address.

By such small, but symbolically important measures, our honours system might be regarded in the broader community as being much more than the "one-day wonder" it is in danger of becoming.


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