The debate over whether to have titular honours is ongoing but New Zealand first needs to change the way we select and appoint our Head of State. We need to decide what values and principles should guide our most important constitional office.
New Zealand has an honours system that the majority of New Zealanders appreciate and value. Within that system there are numerous awards according to a person's contribution and work. The recipients are chosen by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and bestowed by the Governor-General. Occasionally they are bestowed by Queen Elizabeth or Prince Charles. Knighthoods and Damehoods are seen as the most prestigious after membership of the Order of New Zealand which is limited to 20 people at any one time.
The awards have their origins in the British class system which ranks people and bestows aristocratic titles on them. They are imbued with all of the prejudices and biases of that system. They are inherently sexist. Only married heterosexual men are entitled to bestow a title on their partner. The wife of a 'Knight' receives the title of 'Lady'. The husband of a 'Dame' receives no corresponding title. If a man is married to a man then his husband receives no honour. Likewise the wife of a Dame. It is one of the last places in New Zealand where discrimination is condoned and institutionalised.
If New Zealand is to have titled honours what would they be? The current titles bestowed imply that the recipient has a higher social value than everyone else because they have affiliated themselves with the British monarchy. The awarding of the titles are subject to political bias and too often titles are given out to people with party affiliations without any proper public scrutiny. There is no properly independent process or criteria for awarding them. Some people are awarded them for a lifetime of public service. Others get them because they did their job well or won a major sporting event or raised a lot of money for whatever political party is in power.
Australia now looks set to remove titular honours with both the Liberal Party and Labour Party leaders speaking in favour of it. It is a clear rejection of Tony Abbott's decision to reinstate them and then award a knighthood to Prince Phillip.
John Key reinstated titular honours after Labour removed them. Neither decision involved any real public consultation. The cabinet then gave Prince Phillip Additional Membership of the Order of New Zealand.
The sexist nature of the honours system and the way in which the titles are decided are part of a larger conversation that we need to have as a country. That conversation, like the flag issue, is not dependent on having first changed the way we choose our Head of State but it makes sense to start with that primary issue.
Sexist titles could be removed overnight if the government chose to prioritise equal rights but doing so would only raise larger questions about how we honour worthy New Zealanders when our Head of State is itself not chosen by merit.
Transitioning to a Kiwi head of state based on the Office of Governor-General is a straight-forward way to solve the problems inherent in having the British monarch as Head of State.
This new Head of State would still bestow national honours. Whether they would have a greater role in overseeing the awarding of the honours or whether a larger review of the entire honours system is needed would be something for the proposed Head of State Commission to decide or recommend.
We are first campaigning for that central and most important change. The establishment of a Head of State Commission and the overall transition to a merit based system of appointment.