Story: Royal honours system

Page 2. The Order of New Zealand and New Zealand Order of Merit

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The Order of New Zealand

The Order of New Zealand (ONZ) is the country’s highest honour. Established in 1987, it recognises outstanding service to the Crown and people of New Zealand, and can be civilian or military. The ONZ has three types of members: ordinary, additional and honorary. Ordinary membership is limited to 20 living people. Additional members may be appointed to mark important occasions, and citizens of foreign countries or Commonwealth nations of which the queen is not head of state can be made honorary members. Members of the Order of New Zealand do not have the right to use a title (‘sir’ or ‘dame’).

Ladies and gentlemen

Male appointees to the first two levels of the NZOM are knights, and have the right to use the title ‘sir’. The wife of a knight who uses her husband’s surname has the right to use the courtesy title ‘lady’ before her surname. If she uses another surname she may use the courtesy title with her other names, for example the wife of Sir Hone Smith may be known as Dr Jane Jones (Lady Smith). However, the husband of a dame does not have the right to use a courtesy title – this is seen by some as an anomaly.

The New Zealand Order of Merit

The New Zealand Order of Merit (NZOM) is awarded to people who have served the Crown or country with merit, or become distinguished in any field. It was established in 1996 to replace the British state honours that were still being used to pay tribute to New Zealanders at that time.

The NZOM has ordinary, additional and honorary members and five levels. They are:

  • Dames and Knights Grand Companions (GNZM)
  • Dames and Knights Companions (KNZM and DNZM)
  • Companions (CNZM)
  • Officers (ONZM)
  • Members (MNZM).

People appointed to either of the first two levels can use the title ‘sir’ (for men) or ‘dame’ (for women) in front of their name, but the use of titles is not compulsory. These are the only titular New Zealand honours, although the queen may grant dynastic honours that carry titles. The monarch is sovereign of the order and the governor-general is chancellor of the order. The order also provides for a secretary, registrar and herald.

Removal and re-instatement of titles

The major review of the honours system in 1995 recommended that all three orders proposed be non-titular, meaning none of them would give recipients the right to use a title such as ‘dame’ or ‘sir’. However, when the New Zealand Order of Merit was first established its first two levels were titular.

The 1999–2008 Labour government removed the right to use the relevant title for people appointed to the order from 2000, to bring the honours system fully into line with the recommendations of the 1995 review committee, create a wholly New Zealand system and avoid the overshadowing of the Order of New Zealand as the country’s highest honour. However, the succeeding National government reinstated that right in 2009. Principal and distinguished (first and second level) companions of the order appointed from 2000 to 2008 could choose whether to keep their original honour, or to adopt the dame or knight equivalent. As at the end of July 2009, 72 of the 85 recipients concerned had chosen to take up the right to the title of ‘dame’ or ‘sir’. Two of the 13 who declined already had a title.

The issue of titles in the New Zealand royal honours system has been mildly controversial. Those in favour argue that titles reflect a long tradition of honours that acknowledges the British strand of New Zealand’s history, and that they are widely recognised as marks of distinction both in New Zealand and overseas. Opponents of titles argue that they look back inappropriately to the days when New Zealand was part of the British Empire and that they are not consistent with a modern view of New Zealand as an independent and egalitarian nation with its own identity. Another objection is that they overshadow the non-titular Order of New Zealand, which is New Zealand’s highest honour. Some commentators have suggested retaining titles but adopting uniquely New Zealand, perhaps Māori, ones in place of or alongside ‘sir’ and ‘dame’.

How to cite this page:

Mandy Wong, 'Royal honours system - The Order of New Zealand and New Zealand Order of Merit', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Mandy Wong, published 20 Jun 2012