Jon dispenses with aroha to explore John Key's retrograde plan to restore knighthoods
There is plenty about our new government to analyse, not least the fragility of its two wings. We have a Maori Party claiming a mandate that far exceeds the fractiously stark reality of just how few Maori bothered to vote at the election and the party’s own inability to win all seven Maori seats. Tariana and Pita have opportunity, of that there is no doubt, but they are walking a precarious tightrope.
Then there is the bizarrely absurd document that binds National and ACT. One of my bright young things likened the agreement to a legal brief written in preparation for the law suit that will inevitably follow. I’m more sanguine so think, rather, that it was crafted by someone influenced by Salvador Dali. ACT’s collection of MPs appears more akin to a powder keg than a caucus, and the crazed idea by Key to agree to fund ACT’s ideological mates and their research efforts has the potential to boomerang badly upon the prime minister.
But what has really caught my attention was Key uttering once more his intention to restore knighthoods. The airwaves were full of it.
You see, I have talkback radio on in my car so that twice a day I can get to enjoy an array of debate otherwise absent in my life. A few days ago a talkback host was gushing on about restoring knighthoods. Callers trumpeted Key’s good taste in reclaiming our former glory. One old dear, impervious to the heavy group think going down, got stuck into Sir Michael Fay. She called him a degenerate crook, alongside several others of his vintage, but she soon found herself facing hostile interrogation from the show’s host, a reactionary whom I thought possessed neither any short nor long-term memory.
The cringeful fawning and mewing about restoring the old aristocratic form of Knighthoods and Dames reminded me of a phenomenon the French traveller André Siegfried once observed about New Zealanders, a little over a century ago. Siegfried, in a chapter entitled ‘Snobbishness in New Zealand Society,’ noted in relation to our attitudes towards titles that:
“It would seem that (New Zealand’s) character, so definitely democratic, should protect it from this false respect, this forced admiration for the select of mundane society; but, in fact, the most advanced New Zealand democrats have shown that, like their English ancestors and contemporaries, they cannot resist these vain and brilliant influences.”
Others have also weighed in. Simon Upton suggested that the claws of patronage explicit in the award of honours be de-fanged from the government of the day, leaving instead the Queen’s representative to bestow them after taking expert advice.
I strongly agree with him. The intersection between money and politics took centre stage after ‘The Hollow Men’ and the Glenn saga alerted us to the potential for perceived corruption within our system.
Removing temptation is the best salve against crass patronage.
Upton also rightly points to an inadequate status quo whereby it’s impossible for anyone other than the recipient of a particular class of honours to understand their place in the pecking order.
But this last point triggers memories of a recent chat with someone very close to me who had a high honour bestowed upon them. They recounted how one of their friends, also honoured, albeit at a lesser level, felt equally proud of their award. My friend suggested their shared joy for disparate awards was entirely consistent with our egalitarian ethos and tradition.
Law lecturer Dean Knight has even gone so far as to draft a bill to restore knighthoods, including te reo equivalents ‘Tā’ and ‘Kahurangi’ for ‘Sir’ and ‘Dame.’ And while I can’t personally see the point of resurrecting vainglorious linkages to aristocratic pretension, Dean’s Maori variants have the virtue of being at least more soothing on the ear.
Indigeneity, not old Empire form, should surely underpin our award system and if there is too much confusion and too much blandness around the labels of the current pecking order then let’s put our minds to that first. Surely it is not beyond our collective imaginations to construct a hierarchy attached to our indigenous fauna or other cherished symbols of our land.
Isn’t that what we achieved with our currency?
The reason I have raised this issue, however, is that I think Key undermines his new generational patter with this folly. Ten years out – or maybe less, depending on actuarial assessments – from having our republican debate, the new prime minister wants to reverse course to fix a problem that is already eminently fixable.
I’d love to better understand his rationale and his motivations for this policy. Perhaps he might share them with us.
Otherwise my suspicions are raised. I have developed tinnitus over the years from being ear-bashed by kindred spirits to our great saviours from the 1980s – saviours like Roderick Deane, Roger Kerr and Ruth Richardson – complaining that they have not been properly recognised by we, the ungrateful and unwashed beneficiaries of their magic.
I also suspect that Key’s idea actually predates him, just like the current attempt to foist the Supplementary Member electoral system upon us under the cloak of emotive criticisms about MMP.
Who knows whether this clamour for recognition is based upon notions of meritocracy or an unconscious attraction towards oligarchy? Is it that these people need to be rewarded for how special they are, or for how special everyone else isn’t?
Perhaps Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, who says he has a pragmatic rather than emotive view of republicanism, can usefully apply his stated pragmatism by diagnosing the problem that needs fixing and the process he envisages to facilitate any proposed solutions.
Otherwise, I will wonder just who, on the subject of restoring titular titles, is being emotive and who, given the trajectory of our recent history, is being pragmatic.