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.

Comments (25)

by Raymond A Francis on November 24, 2008
Raymond A Francis
"Isn’t that what we achieved with our currency?" I was not aware that our currency was named after indigenous fauna I thought we had dollars and cents not kiwi and fern You make some good points, the whole honours thing does need a tidy up. I have been involved in putting up a couple of my fellow citizens for QSMs, personally I feel they should go to the top of the tree but that just is not possible as that bauble is held by J Hunt ex-minister of Wine & Cheese Yes, take it out of the hands of the pollies. The scandles in the UK have proved that point and that ignores the people who have been Knighted here In fact, just a hard look at them (the local Knights & Dames) makes your case!
by Dr Jon Johansson on November 24, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Raymond - Don't forget "or other cherished symbols of our land." The point being, indigeneity. Thanks for your comments.

by Adolf Fiinkensein on November 24, 2008
Adolf Fiinkensein

I was struck by this remarkable line:-

"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"

Did you pause to wonder about the stark reality of just how few Pakeha bothered to vote and the Labour party's own inability to win more than a handful of seats?

Really!  What the hell is so important about winning ALL the seats?

Can you provide evidence as to the extent by which the Maori Party's mandate somehow 'exceeds' your version of reality?  They either have a mandate or they don't and I suggest to you that 71% of the seats is a pretty good mandate.  A low voter turnout might just as well indicate a decisive mandate in as much as the voters couldn't be bothered turning out for the other side.

I don't believe Mrs Turia and Dr Sharples are walking the tightrope you suggest.  They would be, if they shared the old fashioned view that Maori people will vote for the party which promises the most handouts.  I suggest you will see the rolling back of the Foreshore and Seabed Act this term.  Does anyone seriously think they would have gained such a win from an association with Labour?

As far as the ACT Party agreement with National goes, one can only conclude that your 'gay young thing' might be suffering from eating too many unripe grapes.  From what I've see, the majority of reputable commentators consider the agreement to be essentially that of a coalition agreement rather than merely one for supply and confidence.  I wouldn't call that bizarre.  I'd call it adroit and astute but then I'm a bit of a rightie.

by Dr Jon Johansson on November 24, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Adolf - I think this is the most civil I've ever heard you. Descent in homophobia only happened once. Winning must be agreeing with you. Cheers. 

by Kate Hannah on November 24, 2008
Kate Hannah

I'm with you, Jon.  The new system of honours locates honour in a set of indigenous values and seeks to reqard merit and service rather than providing patronage.   While there may be some valid reasons for bringing back titles, especially if they too are located here through use of Te Reo, surely this "debate" is a timewaster of the highest order?  I've often thought that Michael King's description of New Zealand values in his Penguin history would be a beter starting place for a conversation about honours in a New Zealand context then any other. If Key wants to be the new face of National, he's better off leaving behind such tired "issues" that smack of Conservatism, rather than centrism.

by Adolf Fiinkensein on November 24, 2008
Adolf Fiinkensein

Mr Johansson, you don't do snide back handers at all well.

Homphobia!!??  What on earth are you babbling about?

Ask some of your more learned and older colleagues what the real meaning of the phrase 'gay young things' actually is.  You might get quite a surprise.  It has nothing to do with homophobia.

What is most amusing is that if you knew me, you would realise that on such issues I would be regarded as considerably liberal.  It is a classic error on the part of lefties to assume all righties somehow are poof bashers and staunch devotees of Leviticus.

I was introduced to serious 'anti-homosexual' behaviour in Australia in the early seventies and it was equally as unpleasant as today's nauseous  so-called 'Heroes Parade.'

Regards

 

 

by Steve Barnes on November 24, 2008
Steve Barnes

Indeed, Jon, you're spot on.

I always found the concept of knighthoods rather odd. They were supposedly awarded for services to New Zealand. Surely those who were awarded titles set out to improve the country rather than impress their postie with mail addressed to 'Sir So-and-So' or 'Dame Such-and-Such'.

I daresay that anyone who complains that the award they receive under the current system doesn't give them due credit because they don't get a title isn't worthy of any kind of award.

Incidentally, I think Adolf likes you.

by Dr Jon Johansson on November 24, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Hi Kate - Yes, you'd think with so many more fundamental and pressing issues about our democracy that should be on the table Knights and Dames wouldn't be elevated. Dr. Brash, when leader of National, floated the same balloon so I wonder whether there is something very tribal and interconnected about Key thinking out loud so early into his prime minstership about this subject.

Speaking of Michael King, his last paragraph in that book, where he speaks of us as a good-hearted, practical, commensensical and tolerant people, wouldn't be a bad set of values to underpin any honours system, don't you think?

Steve - Intrinsic pleasure for service to country and its doesn't seem to suffice for some. As for your last comment, mmmmm, nothing to really say other than I think that Adolf would benefit hugely from reading pp.x-xv of Drew Weston's 'The Political Brain.' Revealing stuff.     

by Waikanae Kid on November 24, 2008
Waikanae Kid

Good article Jon. It was with abject horror that I heard Key floating the idea of reintroducing knighthoods.

These arcane baubles have no place in a future Republic and make no bones about it, we will become a Republic.

If we are to have any awards at all and I for one do not believe in them, may I suggest "The noble Order of the Cowpat." Clearly an award for those who are full of it!

Off hand I can think of 122 possible recipients.

by alexandra on November 24, 2008
alexandra

Do you think 'Sir' Edmund Hillary ought to have received 'the noble order of the cowpat'.  No.  How disrespectful is that.  I am proud of the fact that he was knighted, but that is precisely because he did something truely remarkable and worthy of high honour.  The problem with our award system in New Zealand is that we give them out too liberally, thus diminishing their value.

by Adolf Fiinkensein on November 24, 2008
Adolf Fiinkensein

Waikanae Kid, what a dreary, unproductive, mean spirited outlook on life you display.  It is exactly the sort of attitude which has propelled us toward the bottom of every OECD ranking except that for family violence.

There are many, many people who strive for years in their respective fields, not just for personal reward, but to better their country.  A couple I can think of whose politics I'm unlikely to agree with are Eva Rickards and the Mad Butcher.  I don't know whether either has received an award and that's the point I think Mr Key is making.  If she were known as Dame Eva and he as Sir Mad Butcher then their recognition would have some meaning.  The squeaky pommy voiced lady with the little balls (make up) would be another one.  She went spectacularly broke and instead of moaning in the ditch, got off her bum and somehow paid it all back.  Had Rod Donald survived, he too might have been a starter.

Sure there have been problems of patronage but that's not too hard to sort out.

There seems to be a notion among the left that anything traditional is bad, that egalitarianism means everyone must be equal, irrespective of ability or achievement and that any person who overachieves has committed a sin.

Sorry, that was last year's mantra.

by Waikanae Kid on November 24, 2008
Waikanae Kid

Adolf you make a huge mistake in thinking I am of the left.

by Craig Ranapia on November 25, 2008
Craig Ranapia

the fractiously stark reality of just how few Maori bothered to vote at the election

If one of your "bright young things" wrote such a syrup laden load of waffle (how is reality 'fractiously' stark, dear boy?), I hope you'd put a large red question mark in the nearest margin.  If you think that somehow weakens or delegitimates the Maori Party, then perhaps you and Adolf could forgo the entertaining bitchiness, and you could answer the question he put about the relatively low turn out in the general seats.

Might be the basis of an interesting argument about whether we should emulate our cousins across the ditch and introduce compulsory voting.  But the snide and rather gratuitious sniping at the Maori Party is an even more tiresome form of political snobbery than restoring knighthoods.

by Dr Jon Johansson on November 25, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

WK - Knowing your politics I'm not surpised you were surpised at your characterisation as a leftie.

Craig - First off, my last column revealed my support for National's embrace of Maori. It's long overdue and I welcome it. I also believe that this deal provides opportunity for the Maori Party, which I explicitly included in my opening paragraph here.

Nonetheless, I can't ignore the numbers and they tell me that the Maori Party faces significant risk. If, as reported, only some 55% of voters on the Maori roll voted in '08, down some 12 points from '08, there is far more nuance underlying any notions of mandate than absolutist claims.

The Maori Party's party vote increased by 0.27% from '05 (standing now at 2.39%). As a percentage of total Maori voters this is not a high level nor proportion of support.   

There is also tensions between pan-Maori and iwi ambition. The numbers again do make it clear to me that the Maori Party can legitimately claim to represent all Maori. They have the opportunity to put themselves in this position and possess a significant launching pad, but it hasn't been achieved yet.

Since the Labour-Ratana pact collapsed in '96 Maori voters have shown how fluid their support is. The high level of strategic voting by Maori also reinforces this point.

In our current economic climate - where Maori workers, alongside Pacifica and unskilled Pakeha ones, are likely to the first and worst affected by job losses - will these same voters reward the Maori Party for its repositioning efforts in three years time or wonder what the Maori Party has done for them and their families.

This all represents risk. Alongside the advice I've listened to from people far wiser about Maori politics, that's why I say they are walking a precarious tightrope.         

by Robert Robertson on November 25, 2008
Robert Robertson

John Key is out to lunch with his return to honours re  the British Royalty but it will appeal to some.

Of more concern is his speculation on MMP it would seem to me that if a party can muster 3.7%  and be represented then a party that musters 4.2% should also be represented just like a party that gets 0.8 % can get into cabinet whenever!!

First the concept that if you gain a seat then gives your group representation in proportion as apposed to none if you garner the same support but don't get a seat is simply ludicrous and this anomaly should be reviewed. Because this is disenfranshisement of a significant number of people and their opinions.

by Bruce Thorpe on November 26, 2008
Bruce Thorpe

I cannot get too excited about knighthoods and damehoods, but it was a wonderful device for rewarding almost anybody without costing the taxpayer a cent. I reckon a little bit of snobbery and ceremony is part of every diplomatic and governmental presentation, and probably the last advantage of being British was the capacity to grant a credible knighthood. The term "dame" just does not do it, however, and  in that I suspect lies the seed of knighthood's demise.

 Helen Clark could informally be called Auntie when she held real power, but we would all be discomforted if she ever became a dame.

The results in the Maori electorates do not look like support for a nationwide political organisation. All seven successful candidates had strong personal networks, and their vote winning strategies have much  more in common with such individualist MMP survivors as Jim Anderton and Peter Dunn, than the more widely based "policy " party - the Greens.

The contemporary politician who has come closest to building an appeal nationwide among Maori voters is Winston Peters.

by Dr Jon Johansson on November 26, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Robert - I agree, if the one-seat trigger was removed it would in a stroke alleviate arguably the worst anomaly created under MMP. It might also reduce the mood for another referendum.

Bruce - Regarding your last point, I suspect that one of the reasons why NZ First's vote held up as high as it did was because some Maori voters chose to support him in defiance of all who wanted him gone.

NB. In my reply to Craig yesterday my sentence - "The numbers again do make it clear to me that the Maori Party can legitimately claim to represent all Maori" - should have read, of course, "do not".

by Bruce Thorpe on November 26, 2008
Bruce Thorpe

The Maori Party does not have a mandate to represent all Maori . Quite clearly the successful candidates in the Maori seats all won on the basis of personal popularity within each electorate, and these individuals can certainly claim a mandate to represent their separate electorates. The Maori Party, as always won very little support on the list vote, because its brand of indigenous nationalism is not supported by the majority of Maori. The numbers on the Maori rolls make up less than 7 % of the total roll, and census figures indicate there are a greater number of Maori choosing to be  on the general roll. In recent years, there has been an strong enlistment drive for the Maori roll, and I suspect such enthusiasm could have resulted in a significant number of multiple entries on these rolls, which in turn could help explain the  lower turnout of voters in the Maori electorates..

by Chris de Lisle on December 04, 2008
Chris de Lisle

I wonder, with the Maori Party as to whether its low party vote indicates a lack of support or is the result of tactical voting in the knowledge that the party was bound to have an overhang anyway.

It seems to me that in such circumstances a party vote for the Maori party is almost as much of a throw-away vote as one for the progressives or RAM.

 

As for knighthoods, I have to say that I am emotively in favour. Having sirs and dames around is somewhat more fun than having Principal and Distinguished Companions... It seems to be a general trend of republicanism to take all the fun out of the state. We will inevitably replace our 'Governor-General' with a 'President,' and our 'Realm of' with a 'Republic of'.

That said, I have to acknowledge that recognising great service is not really a place where we ought, neccessarily, to be having fun.

***

Given how much appeal they seem to have, though, I wonder why we don't set up a complicated and convoluted parallel honours/peerage system in which interesting and excessively pretentious titles are open to whoever is willing to pay for them.

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