Story: Royal honours system

Page 1. History and overview

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State honours are a way for a nation to acknowledge achievements and to celebrate and thank people who have served their communities. New Zealand has had its own complete honours system since 1996, made up of three orders and a range of other awards. Before 1975 New Zealanders were honoured through the long-established British system.

The first New Zealand civilian awards were the Queen’s Service Order (QSO) and the associated Queen’s Service Medal (QSM), both established in 1975. Another New Zealand honour, the Order of New Zealand (ONZ), was created in 1987. New Zealand used a mixture of British and New Zealand honours from 1975 to 1996, when the New Zealand Order of Merit replaced the last of the British state honours used for New Zealanders. These were the award of Knight Bachelor, appointments to the Order of the Bath, Order of St Michael and St George, the Order of the British Empire, and the Order of the Companions of Honour.

Royal and dynastic honours

King Charles III is New Zealand’s head of state. The right to found and grant honours is a long-established royal prerogative (right) under constitutional convention. New Zealand royal honours are conferred by the monarch on the advice of the New Zealand prime minister.

There are some honours, called dynastic honours, that are the exclusive personal gift of the sovereign. New Zealanders may, although rarely, receive honours from the monarch outside the nomination and selection process for New Zealand royal honours (for example, mountaineer Edmund Hillary was made a Knight of the Garter in 1995). Dynastic honours include Knight or Lady of the Order of the Garter, Member of the Order of Merit and various honours under the Royal Victorian Order.

Appointments and promotions regarding the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem are approved by the monarch as the head of the order, and are not made on the advice of government ministers.

Hereditary titles

There are no hereditary titles in the New Zealand royal honours system. However, people in New Zealand sometimes inherit titled British peerages or baronetcies (aristocratic titles) through their families. In addition, a few have been created baronets by the sovereign of the day, including Joseph Ward, a former prime minister of New Zealand (1906–12 and 1928–30). Scientist Ernest Rutherford was made a hereditary peer, but his title died with him as he had no living male heirs. Several New Zealanders have been given peerages for their lifetime only.

Sir Kakapō

At the time of the 1995 review, then Minister of Justice Doug Graham’s lack of enthusiasm for something like an ‘Order of the Kakapō’ replacing Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George led to a memorable headline in the Dominion newspaper: ‘Arise, Sir Kakapo’.1 The response of Ruth Dyson, MP for Lyttelton, was that ‘if Mr Graham would like the Order of the Kakapo to have more mana, perhaps it could be called the Distinguished Order of Strigops Habroptilus’.2

Review and reform

The fully New Zealand honours system, instituted in 1996, came out of a major review undertaken in 1995, a time when New Zealand was also examining other aspects of its relationship with the UK. Amongst other issues, the prime ministerial review committee looked at the purpose and coverage of the system, the appropriateness of the mix of British and New Zealand honours being used and whether some honours should be titular (come with a title, such as ‘sir’ or ‘dame’).

Many people expressed views in submissions to the committee and in the media at the time of the review. The review committee proposed a revised honours system that it considered would be simpler, open to people of every background on merit, reflect the Treaty of Waitangi partnership and New Zealand’s cultural diversity, and appropriately merge new with old.

  1. Dominion, 28 January 1995, p. 18. Back
  2. Press, 27 January 1995, p. 18. Back
How to cite this page:

Mandy Wong, 'Royal honours system - History and overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

Story by Mandy Wong, published 20 Jun 2012