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.

20 thoughts on “A bauble for underperformance

  1. Still, overall, a practise of value for the community. However it should be cut to a third, remove any well paid unless their contribution is obviously well above what their job required and keep the pressure on to avoid cronyism.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hmm I would have thought a honours system would be an anathema to a socially conservative christian.

    The practice will always be different to the theory.
    Strange how Lloyd George was highly criticised for selling off honours where all he did was vastly oversee a system the conservatives did all the time.
    Jesus did say to abhor titles to his disciples ( my paraphrasing). Sounds about right to me.


  3. Nice commentary Michael. I agree. Honours should be just that; for people who go above and beyond the call of duty in service to the community, not as a perk for doing a (often well paid) job. And as for formal titles…


  4. I wouldn’t propose inventing a titular system if one didn’t exist, and equally I wouldn’t be too bothered if we went the US way and got rid almost completely of official honours systems (other than for military gallantry).

    I take the injunctions of Jesus in this context as being something that applies within the community of faith. When i was young- and perhaps more naive – I was shocked, and disapproved, when Archbishop Paul Reeves accepted a knighthood and the position of Governor-General. Even today, on balance I think it is probably inappropriate.


  5. Society is awash with awards of all kinds…including journalists awarding gongs to other journalists in a swag of categories that means “award-winning” has become a standard and inevitable epithet for anyone who writes and is published. The sheer volume of the Honours lists for political grandees and hangers-on makes them equally pointless.


  6. The USA has made a point of removing honours with its “Mr President” but they remain besotted with awards most of which sound embarrassing to outsiders: such as members of the Baseball hall of fame, the Rock and Roll hall of fame, etc. I suppose it does do some good in providing historical education for fans.

    The problem with honours is the recipients who deserve them do not need them. If I return home and say to my family “Guess who I met today – it was Richie McCaw or alternatively Sir Graeme Wheeler” their response to the former would be enthusiastic with or without a title whereas the latter would cause them to appreciate I’d met somebody who the government thought was important at some time in the past but still elicit “Who he?”. Possibly in 30 years time a young person will need to be told who Richie McCaw was but then again Colin Meads held his reputation for almost half a century.

    If I am ever invited to meet the Queen I will be honoured whereas when she meets holders of Victoria Cross (Willie Apiata VC) she is the one being honoured.

    Lets keep the honours list but avoid awarding honours to sport stars before they retire and bankers before they dent the national economy (Fred Goodwin).

    As you and others point out an honour’s value is in its scarcity. So a ‘VC’ means something but an ‘Iron Cross’ or ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ (Leonid Brezhnev had four) is as my family says a ‘something nothing’. The fact that Willie Apiata VC was just doing a job he was paid for is irrelevant and so is the reasonable assumption other soldiers have done equivalent and never been honoured.


    • You forgot the “Purple Heart”

      America is big on Military Honours

      Service cross medals – Awarded for “extraordinary heroism”
      Distinguished Service Cross (Army)
      Navy Cross ribbon.svg Navy Cross
      Air Force Cross ribbon.svg Air Force Cross
      Coast Guard Cross ribbon.png Coast Guard Cross


    • Agree with all that. And the VC is an example of exceptional gallantry, over and above the normal expectation of a soldier’s performance.

      In the same way, Winston Churchill was being paid while being PM, but (I think) he deserved a knighthood )(and higher had he accepted it) for the quality of leadership in particular, very taxing, circumstances. I’m not sure most other PMs – British or NZ – have deserved high honours (titles or just ONZ/OM).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Correct – The value of an honour is its scarcity

      A good example is the Association Football “Legends” honorific

      In 70 years there are only 4 who have ever reached such status


      NZ Rugby Legends

      George Nepia
      Bob Scott
      Colin Meads


      • Please replace Maradonna (overrated) with Messi. The point is legends need no honour just discussion by informed fans. Legends are the performers other performers admire.


  7. An “honours” system is desirable. Whichever system is followed it is essential to preserve the dignity of it. If it is handed out like graffiti it becomes devalued

    In defence of Knighthoods I refer you to the Australian System of honours AO (Order of Australia) being the top honour among a number. Three problems with them. They are bestowed under the grab-bag Of Queens Birthdays honours. They are dished out liberally. And they are meaningless. Sir Fred Dagg is more meaningful than Fred Dagg AO

    The Royal Honours System was discontinued some years ago and replaced with the Australian Honours System. Tony Abbot re-instated Knighthoods in 2014 and bestowed 2. One on the Governor General and one on Prince Phillip Duke of Edinburgh. There was widespread outrage over the Knighthood for Prince Phillip which spoilt the exercise.

    Malcolm Turnbull, current PM has discontinued them again. Turnbull who was head of the Republican Movement in 1999 and the failed Republic Referendum is now proposing to hold another Republic Referendum. The sad part of all this is in 2014 Abbott also proposed to hold a referendum in 2017 to amend their constitution to record recognition of Aborigines in the constitution. Australia, under Turnbull, has had a 2017 referendum on Gay Marriage, wants another referendum on becoming a republic, but refuses to hold the referendum on the recognition of Aborigines in the constitution

    It is noticed that Heather du Plessis-Allan, a foreign born local columnist wrote a December 2017 article advocating NZ become a republic. Becoming a Republic would be the end of the Royal Honours System and the adoption of a meaningless system


  8. On reward or recognition for a job already paid for, the approach that performance needs to exceed expectation needs consideration. So yes the former govenor seems to be out but the executives that make an abiding change, in. Likewise the expert people appointed/seconded to Crown boards, enquiries etc. Rarely would the scale fees reward for good outcomes. There are at least a couple in the CNZM recent list that over the years have put themselves forward to good effect, likely at the expence of their day job and certainly at financial disadvantage.


  9. Yes, I suspect honours are partly a substitute for paying people on govt boards adequately. My preference would be to pay them properly, and keep honours for people making an outstanding contribution to the country, over and above the regular call of duty.


    • Agree Mike with that remuneration step but it shouldn’t disqualify from honours consideration a director/employee/advisor/judge who then materially contributes to step change within that regular call of duty.


  10. Noelle McCarthy
    Jim Bloger was prime minister from 1990 to1997.
    “Do you see NZ First and Winston Peters as playing in that same political space as figures like Donald trump and Nigel Farage?”

    Jim Bolger
    Broadly the same space but Winston has done that many times before so he’s not following them but the same space. And ah there were always a percentage of society who will follow that because it explains their own inadequacies often, that they haven’t been successful, so blame someone else based on identifying some definable group by religion, by ethnicity by colour, by nationality, and you blame them and that is, to my mind an appalling on those who do it but on any society that would accept that as a reason to change policies.
    A Slice of Heaven RNZ

    Government policies blamed for house prices


    • That article in Stuff was published in 2011 – Reads like a Prequel to a Prequel. Nothing has changed. All the issues canvassed then were exactly the same as National departed.

      Nine years of National were 9 years of see no evil, hear no evil, do no evil

      Did Kerry McDonald or Dr Andrew Coleman ever get considered for a gong

      They should have


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