A bauble for underperformance

As an Anglophile traditional conservative, the idea of the twice-yearly honours lists appeals to me.   It has deepish roots in our past  –  although not that deep (the Order of the British Empire, initial source of most of the awards to ordinary people who do good dates back only to 1917.)   Many societies have such awards in one form or another –  although the United States doesn’t.    All societies honour success –  however defined – and/or sacrifice in some way or another, and formalised state awards can be a part of such a system.  Perhaps the best forms of recognition emerge from below –  whether subsequently encapsulated in formal awards or not.

But if the idea of the honours lists has a certain appeal, the practice is much less satisfactory.   That is especially so in the higher reaches of the lists, where there seem to be too many awards in total, and far too many given to people who, at best, have done competently in highly-paid (or otherwise rewarded) roles.   In our most recent honours list seven knighthoods were awarded –  about a quarter as many as in the UK, for a country with less than one twelfth of the population of the UK.   Are there really 14 people each year of such exceptional merit in New Zealand?     (I’m not bothered about the Sir/Dame title –  hardly anyone knows who has been awarded the premier award in our system, the Order of New Zealand, and there seems to be some merit –  as well as historical continuity –  in the use of a title for the handful of people of exceptional merit.)

And many or most of the people in the upper reaches of the system have already, as it were, had their reward.  Even among the 19 members of the Order of New Zealand, at least half seem to have been rewarded largely for doing their job, typically for quite a long time.  Ken Douglas anyone?  Or Don McKinnon?  Jonathan Hunt, Ken Keith, Ron Carter, or even Richie McCaw.  Jim Bolger, Helen Clark, Cardinal Williams or Mike Moore.

And what of the seven new knights and dames in the latest honours list?   There are a couple of public servants, two former politicians (one successful, one much less so), one former president of a political party, a judge, a successful business person, and a former sportsman –  from the amateur era – who appears to have put a lot back into rugby.   Perhaps they’ve all done exceptionally well at what they did –  most of the names I don’t know well enough to tell –  but in most cases they seem already to have had their rewards –  whether in salary, status, power or whatever.  In most cases, they seem already have have been officially honoured previously too.   From what I can see, there might be a compelling case for a high honour –  titled or not – to perhaps two of these people.

Of the next tier down –  the eight recipients of the CNZM –  most (but not all) appear to have been rewarded for doing their day jobs, often again over long periods of time.   And this doesn’t appear to be unusual.  If I reflect back on people I’ve known who received honours over the years –  family members included –  most seem to have been honoured for doing their job.  In many cases, they probably did those jobs quite well, but not many seemed exceptional.  I suspect –  without doing the supporting analysis –  that there is a big difference between the upper and lower reaches of the honours list.  Probably most recipients of the QSM (eg this chap) are very worthy –  people who have poured their time and energies into some cause or community with little or no expectation of reward. In the higher reaches, that is much less common.  An acquaintance of mine won an award a year or two back for “services to the state”, which consisted of (paid) service on various government boards.  In this year’s honours list, David Smol –  recently departed head of MBIE –  picked up a QSO, simply for doing his job.   Perhaps he ran MBIE well –  but then he was well-paid to do so –  but when the citation suggests that

As Chief Executive of the Ministry of Economic Development from 2008 to 2012 and Deputy Secretary (Energy and Communications Branch) from 2003 to 2008, Mr Smol’s leadership has been critical to the New Zealand economy.

the words “gilding the lily” spring to mind, along with the debacle that is the New Zealand housing market, or an export sector that has been shrinking.  “Critical to the New Zealand economy”?  I think not.  Smol’s isn’t an egregious case –  it seems to be how the system works.

But if rewarding people with honours simply for doing competently a job they were well paid for sticks in the craw a little, rewarding people with high honours for doing a well-paid job rather badly simply shouldn’t happen.

I’ve written quite a lot about Graeme Wheeler, former Governor of the Reserve Bank.  After he left the Bank in September, I didn’t really expect to write about him again.  But then his name popped up in the New Year’s Honours List, as recipient of a CNZM.

In his single five year term –  so it wasn’t even a long-service award –  Graeme Wheeler exercised a great deal of power (the Governor is the most powerful unelected person in New Zealand), but generally neither wisely nor well.   Whether in stories when he left office, or in stories around the appointment of his successor last month, few seemed to much lament his passing from the scene.   So just a quick reminder of some features of Wheeler’s stewardship:

  • as sole monetary policy decisionmaker he materially misread inflation pressures, enthusiastically commencing a monetary policy tightening cycle which was soon widely recognised to have been unnecessary. The tightenings were fully reversed, but slowly and, generally, grudgingly,
  • as sole prudential policy decisionmaker he rushed into imposing LVR restrictions without any serious supporting analysis of the housing market or the nature of the risks to the financial system.  And then added greatly to regulatory uncertainty through repeated changes to the rules,
  • his public communications were poor.  Speeches were generally not very enlightening –  and at times at odds with policy moves shortly thereafter –  and he rarely if ever opened himself to critical scrutiny in the media (refusing all requests for interviews that might involve searching questions).
  • he adopted a consistently obstructive approach to the Official Information Act, all the while continuing to assert that he ran one of the most transparent central banks anywhere,
  • he oversaw systems that allowed an OCR decision to leak prior to the official release, and when reluctantly he finally had to acknowledge the leak he chose to praise the helpfulness of the media outlet responsible for the leak, and attempt to attack the person who brought the possibility of the leak to his attention (and that of the public),
  • his thin-skinned approach to debate and critical scrutiny reached a low point earlier this year when a leading bank economist got under the Governor’s skin to such an extent that Wheeler had his entire team of senior managers trying to censor or silence the economist.  The Governor himself –  regulator of the economist’s employer, the BNZ –  put in writing his attempt to have Stephen Toplis censored.

No wonder even the official citation lists no particular achievements, just offices held –  each and every one well-remunerated.    It is as if even Bill English and Steven Joyce knew there just wasn’t much there.  But they went ahead and tossed him a bauble anyway – comfirmed by the new Prime Minister and her deputy.   It is an award that reflects poorly on the system, on the recipient, and on those bestowing (or acquiescing in) the award.  It should be one more strand in the case for an overhaul of the system, perhaps even for disbanding all but, say, the QSM.  But no doubt Graeme Wheeler will enjoy his day out at Government House.

And thus I agree with much of the editorial in the Dominion-Post on honours lists that seems to have appeared a few days ago.