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Royal honours system

by Mandy Wong

Knight and dame companions might sound like something from a medieval tale, but they are titles from New Zealand’s honours system. In 1996 New Zealand replaced the British honours system with its own home-grown honours.

History and overview


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.

    • Dominion, 28 January 1995, p. 18. Back
    • Press, 27 January 1995, p. 18. Back

The Order of New Zealand and New Zealand Order of Merit

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’.

Queen’s service, bravery and Antarctic honours

The Queen’s Service Order

Membership of the Queen’s Service Order (QSO) is awarded for valuable voluntary service to the community, meritorious and faithful services to the Crown, or similar services within the public sector, whether in elected or appointed office. Membership of this order is for civilians only. Established in 1975, the order’s name commemorates Queen Elizabeth II being designated the first ‘Queen of New Zealand’.

Ordinary members of the order are called ‘companions’. Ordinary membership is limited to 50 appointments each year. The order also allows for extra, honorary and additional companions, the monarch as sovereign of the order and the governor-general as principal companion of the order.

The Queen’s Service Medal

The Queen’s Service Medal (QSM), a civilian medal, is associated with the QSO, though not part of it – it is awarded for similar achievements but at a local or regional level rather than national level. There is no annual limit to awards of the medal.

New Zealand bravery awards

New Zealand’s bravery awards acknowledge people who save or try to save the life of another person, placing their own safety or life at risk. Generally the awards are for civilians, but they may be awarded to military personnel when a gallantry or other award would not be appropriate.

  • The New Zealand Cross (NZC) rewards acts of great bravery in situations of extreme danger.
  • The New Zealand Bravery Star (NZBS) is awarded for acts of outstanding bravery in situations of danger.
  • The New Zealand Bravery Decoration (NZBD) is given for acts of exceptional bravery in situations of danger.
  • The New Zealand Bravery Medal (NZBM) recognises acts of bravery.

New Zealand Antarctic Medal

The New Zealand Antarctic Medal (NZAM) was created in 2006 as the New Zealand equivalent of the British Polar Medal. It is awarded for an outstanding contribution to exploration, scientific research, conservation, environmental protection or knowledge of the Antarctic region; or an outstanding contribution in support of New Zealand’s objectives or operations in the Antarctic region. The front of the medal shows the queen; the back features four emperor penguins in front of Mt Erebus.

Bestowing honours

Nomination and selection

Anybody can nominate anyone (except themselves) for an honour by completing a nomination form and sending it to the Honours Unit, Cabinet Office, in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Nominations are considered by a cabinet committee comprising a group of ministers of the crown chaired by the prime minister. Recommendations for most honours go, on the advice of the prime minister, to the governor-general for informal approval, then, again on the advice of the prime minister, to the monarch for formal approval. Between 1,400 and 1,800 nominations are made each year, from which roughly 400 honours are granted.

For services to…

New Zealanders in many walks of life have been honoured for their contributions to a wide range of fields. In 2010 and 2011 these included services to agriculture, Antarctic engineering, the arts, astrophysics, brass bands, specific communities (including the Chinese, Deaf, Greek, Indian, Tokelauan and visually impaired communities), emergency management, forensic science, gymnastics, health, historic places, Māori, marching, netball administration, photography, recreational fishing, senior citizens, shearing, solo long-distance rowing and typography – and many others.

The choice of those to be honoured is sometimes controversial, with commentary in the written media regularly accompanying the publication of each honours list.

Women’s recognition by the honours system has increased over time. In 2010–11 around a third of honours recipients were women.

Checking with nominees

Successful nominees are asked by the official secretary to the governor-general whether or not they will accept an honour. This process is called ‘sounding’. Sometimes people decline, for a variety of reasons. However, very few people offered an honour refuse it. The published lists are of those people who have accepted the honour offered.

Announcement of honours

New Zealand royal honours are announced regularly twice a year: at New Year, and on the official observance of the monarch’s birthday in June. Sometimes additional ‘special honours lists’ are published. Honours lists are gazetted (formally published) in the New Zealand Gazette.

‘After you, madam’

New Zealand society is relatively classless. However, on some formal occasions the ‘order of precedence’ is observed. This puts in order the royal, vice-regal (the governor-general), governmental, diplomatic and other positions of note in New Zealand’s society for practical purposes such as seating and order of speech. ‘The precedence of orders’ – a different concept – determines the order in which honours are announced and gazetted. The order in which people should wear various individual honours insignia, decorations and medals is prescribed by ‘the order of wear’.

Bestowing honours

The procedure of formally conferring an honour and its insignia is called investiture. Investiture ceremonies are generally conducted by the governor-general, usually at Government House in Wellington or Government House in Auckland. New knights are still tapped on their right then left shoulder with a sword, in an ancient ritual called the ‘accolade of knighthood’ but better known as ‘dubbing’. Dames are not dubbed.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Mandy Wong, 'Royal honours system', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Mandy Wong, i tāngia i te 20 o Hune 2012