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Sir Peter Snell (left), Sir Russell Coutts (centre) and Sir Colin Meads in 2009, after titles were reinstated. Photo/Getty

A new type of New Year Honours list

Jenny Nicholls ponders the New Year Honours list.

It is New Year’s Day. Did we have a little too much of something last night? Feeling a bit green around the gills? You may not care, but it is time to puff out the national chest – even if it’s feeling a little cheesy.

Honk! Toot! Parp! Arggh! The New Year Honours List has been nailed to the palace gates: “The Queen has been pleased, on the celebration of the New Year, to make the following appointments to The New Zealand Order of Merit…”

Getting a gong from the Queen of New Zealand makes a lot of people and their families proud and happy, and most of them deserve it, even if, with respect, few of us could tell a KNZM from an ONZ. The honours list is, basically, a list of acronyms nobody understands: DNZMs, QSOs, QSMs, OMGs and WTFs. What? Who?

Did you know we have two tiers of knights and dames? No, me neither.

The award for the most memorable award must go to The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, anointed for things to do with Scotland. No New Zealander has one. So we got the invasive weed, but not the award... Somebody do something! This is a nation built on thistle-grubbing, Ma’am, and they were your thistles, too.

Most of our awardees have to make do with an acronym within the New Zealand Order of Merit, awarded to those “who in any field of endeavour, have rendered meritorious service to the Crown and the nation or who have become distinguished by their eminence, talents, contributions or other merits”.

If honours are seen as a national thank you, it’s the bit about being “eminent” that provokes a collective nose wrinkle, as one person’s “eminent” is another’s “self-promoting git”. Eminence depends on so many things, doesn’t it? One must not only be visible to the press, but interesting to the press. If you have seriously annoyed the PM or any of the Cabinet ministers assigned to the Cabinet Appointments and Honours Committee, you can kiss that KNZM goodbye.

We all know the argument – and it is a good one: should you be awarded simply for doing a well-remunerated job (arguably) well? Former PM John Key, for instance, is no ordinary knight. He is a “knight grand companion”, an award so lofty there cannot be more than 30 living holders. (There are currently 13.)

I mean, really?

Surely, captains of industry, celebrities and civil servants need a gong less than a researcher whose intelligence and drive are pretty much all that stand between a species and extinction, or a river and its decline. The researcher who feels as if they are shouting into the wind when they warn that New Zealand is about to export a child-killing virus to a hopelessly under-immunised community. This is the kind of person who could really use an honour, to rally support for something other than their “personal brand”.

And shouldn’t sleepless nights about other people’s bank balances be ranked higher than sleepless nights about your own? I rate – since we are being hierarchical – quiet expertise, acquired over a lifetime, above eminence. There is something selfless about curiosity, especially for its own sake – and we should value our experts, because we need them.

The heroic levels of volunteer labour by back-room Wikipedia editors is also overlooked, perhaps because it is such a new and quiet way to help the world. Take Wikipedian Dr Mike Dickison. Thanks to him, New Zealand has a far bigger and more reliable presence on the world’s go-to reference site. He has also convinced libraries and museums throughout the land to share, online, publicly funded material so we can all use and enjoy it – which is the whole point of libraries and museums, after all. Give the man an ONZM at least. 

But harrumphing on Twitter about the honours list brings New Zealanders together, doesn’t it? Let’s all go and mutter darkly about greasing one’s chute.

You first, Helen.

“My government in 2000 removed knighthoods and damehoods from the NZ honours list,” tweeted Helen Clark (ONZ, PC) in 2018. “Unfortunately the next government brought them back.” (Before you make the obvious joke, her PC stands for “Privy Councillor”.)

“If stripping obnoxious knights of their honours becomes a thing,” snorted Hamish Keith (OBE, CNZM), “the ranks of nobility in New Zealand will be threadbare in no time at all.”

Wikipedian Dr Mike Dickison surely deserves a gong. Photo/Ken Downie
In the spirit of rewarding those who are selflessly dedicated to making the world a better place, I have drawn up my own honours list – bearing in mind an issue highlighted by many commentators and writers such as Stuff’s Olivia Caldwell in her piece, “Gender imbalance sees outstanding Kiwi sportswomen shunned for damehoods”.

I hereby nail the following quote to the Cabinet Appointments and Honours Committee’s door:

“What happens to women is they do a lot of work, but often it is in the background. They are not seen [but] they do the groundwork.” – former Silver Ferns coach Dame Lois Muir.

So here is my honours list of the quietly stupendous, as judged by me and as many of their peers as I could pester.

As this is a science column, many of my contacts lie within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. If you know someone who deserves to be officially thanked by the nation, by all means nominate them. Anyone can do it, by filling out a form you can find on the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet website under “New Zealand Royal Honours”.

Ridiculously gongworthy

Give these people a big fat GNZM or QSO ASAP.

Dr Vic Arcus (biochemistry): This professor from the University of Waikato is one of New Zealand’s outstanding biochemists, although you may never have heard of him. “Vic is doing hard, fundamental research that will probably be in every biochemistry textbook in the world one day,” says Victoria University biochemist Dr Wayne Patrick.

Dr Margaret Bradshaw (geology): Bradshaw, 78, is a trailblazer for women in Antarctic research – Bradshaw Peak in Antarctica is named after her.

Dr Kath Dickinson (plant ecology): The Otago University professor is a hugely influential ecologist and teacher, but her important work – invasive plant species is just one of her research areas – often flies under the radar.

Dr Bronwyn Hayward (political science): This University of Canterbury politics professor studies, among other things, the social effects of climate change. She was the inaugural joint winner of UC’s Arts Conscience and Critic of Society Award in 2014, and in 2018 was made a Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year “Local Hero”. She “has done incredible work for Aotearoa with important contributions to the IPCC,” says Dr Siouxsie Wiles (MNZM).

Dr Daniel Hikuroa (Earth systems) is an expert on mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) in science at the University of Auckland, with an interest in restoring New Zealand waterways, from the Hauraki Gulf, geothermal developments to rivers and catchments. He is a vocal part of Te Awaroa, a project building group action to care for waterways. His work has made quite an impact on my advisory panel. “An incredible scientist and human being,” says Wiles.

Dr Beverley Holloway (entomology) is still doing research at 88. She has nine beetle species named after her, which says much for the reverence in which she is held by the entomology community. “A world expert on stag beetles,” says Wikipedian Dr Mike Dickison, “of which we have critically endangered species.”

Dr Daphne Lee (palaeoecologist): This associate professor at the University of Otago has worked on fossils from the Foulden Maar site in Otago since 2005. Much of what we know about the fossils there is due to her work – and her public intervention helped prevent the fossil bed from being turned into pig food by a mining company. Ecologist Dr Amanda Black: “Daphne Lee is an inspiration.”

Dr Andrew Lorrey (climate science/geology): This ingenious principal scientist at NIWA uses shipping logs and kauri tree rings to reconstruct climates, and his work was central to finding the site of the Pink and White Terraces.  “Dr Lorrey is internationally respected for his impactful research of Southern Hemisphere climate through the past, present, and future,” says Massey University’s Dr Alastair Clement. “He is recognised as a superb scientist, scientific leader and mentor.”

Dr Bruce Marshall (biology): Self-taught, Marshall has named hundreds of mollusc species at Te Papa Tongarewa, where he started work in 1976. In 2012, he was awarded a Doctor of Science degree by Victoria University, which described him as “the leading authority on the taxonomy of living molluscs in New Zealand”; 24 species and six genera have been named after him.

Dr Tara Murray (entomology): North & South has written about this University of Canterbury researcher’s work with rare native grasshoppers. “We have very few people working on endangered insects,” says Dickison, “and Tara is one of them. She has been a tireless advocate for our rarest insects, pushing the idea that they should get as much attention and consideration as birds.”

Dr Wendy Nelson, FRSNZ* (biology) is an internationally known expert who “wrote the book on our native seaweeds”, says Dickison. She has an MNZM but, in our opinion, deserves something shinier.

Dr Helen Petousis-Harris (medicine)  –  University of Auckland – is a respected researcher in vaccine safety and effectiveness, and an indefatigable spokesperson for evidence-based vaccine science. “Helen has been viciously attacked by anti-vaccination fanatics for her work yet carries on regardless,” says Wiles. “She’s an absolute superstar and Aotearoa is lucky to have her.”

Dr Ken Quarrie (sports science) is senior scientist for NZ Rugby, respected for the clarity of his evidence-based thinking in a field filled with know-it-alls – concussion in sport. Professor Patria Hume, an expert in sports injury prevention at AUT, says Quarrie is a role model for balance and integrity. “Many scientists are egocentric, while Ken truly wants to help people and is mentoring the next generation of sport scientists.”

Dr Nic Rawlence (Palaeogenetics): A University of Otago researcher admired for his work – and the generosity of his science outreach. You’ll see his quotes in many news articles. “Nic’s work is really exciting, revealing things about Aotearoa New Zealand’s extinct animals that almost seem to bring them back to life,” says Professor Hamish Spencer (FRSNZ).

Dr Cather Simpson, FRSNZ (physics) is professor of physics at the University of Auckland. Despite a long list of successes (the latest being the 2019 Pickering Medal from the Royal Society Te Apārangi ), she has had surprisingly little recognition outside science. “Cather is an incredible scientist and entrepreneur,” says Wiles. “She brings together scientists and engineers and gets them to apply their cutting-edge research to try to solve all sorts of real world problems. What she has achieved is phenomenal.”

Dr Nick Waipara (plant ecology) is a Plant & Food Research microbiologist who studies plant pathology and bio-security, and has highlighted the dangers of toxic mouldy homes. “Waipara brought kauri dieback to the attention of the authorities, and is a champion for Māori in STEM subjects” says Black.  

* FRSNZ – Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand

The ONZ. This is Richie McCaw's. Photo/Getty

Guide to Gongs

The Order of New Zealand (ONZ)

Membership of this order, established in 1987, is the highest royal honour in New Zealand, although it doesn’t come with a title. The “ordinary membership” is restricted to 20 living members. There are currently 19. Like who? Kiri Te Kanawa, Helen Clark, Jim Bolger, Peter Gluckman, Lloyd Geering, Richie McCaw. Gender balance: 15 men, 4 women. Confusingly, there are currently seven “additional” members of the order, plus one “honorary” member. Like who? Malvina Major, Karl Stead, Prince Philip, Peter Jackson. Gender balance: 5 men, 3 women.

The Orders of Chivalry

The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (Knight and Dame Grand Cross, Knight and Dame Commander – GCMG, KCMG/DCMG); The Royal Victorian Order (Knight and Dame Grand Cross – GCVO); The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (Knight and Dame Commander – KBE/DBE); Knight Bachelor (Kt Bach). Like who? Bob Jones, Michael Fay and Ron Brierley are all Knights Bachelor (Kt Bach). Gender balance: 46 New Zealanders have order of chivalry titles. 31 are men (21 are Knights Bachelor, a male-only award). Our government no longer nominates New Zealanders to these orders, although the Royal Victorian Order can be awarded as a personal gift of the monarch.

New Zealand Order of Merit

Established in 1996, this has five levels.

Level 1: Knight or Dame Grand Companion (GNZM) Not more than 30 living people, who become a “Sir” or “Dame” – there are currently only 13. Like who? Ray Avery, Bill Birch, John Key, Jerry Mateparae, Sian Elias. Gender balance: 9 men, 4 women.

Level 2: Knight (KNZM) or Dame (DNZM) Companion. These are also “Sirs” and “Dames”. Like who? Valerie Adams, the Topp twins, Trelise Cooper, Denise L’Estrange-Corbet, Julie Christie, Peter Gluckman, Tim Shadbolt, Mark Todd, Pita Sharples, Peter Jackson, Colin Giltrap, Russell Coutts. Gender balance: 117 knights, 68 dames.

Principal Companion (PCNZM) and Distinguished Companion (DCNZM). Just because these honours have the word “companion” in them, it doesn’t mean PCNZM and DCNZM are in the lower-ranked “Companion” category (below). They are the equivalent of knights and dames, except the recipients chose not to accept titles when John Key’s government reinstituted them in 2009 and offered all the PCNZMs and DCNZMs the chance to become Sirs or Dames. Most accepted. Those who didn’t included distinguished companions Vincent O’Sullivan, Sister Pauline O’Regan, Witi Ihimaera, Bishop Penny Jamieson, Joy Cowley, Patricia Grace, Margaret Wilson and Sam Neill. Silvia Cartwright remained a principal companion, but she had already been made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire while a High Court judge.

Level 3: Companion (CNZM) Limited to 40 appointments a year.

Level 4: Officer (ONZM) Limited to 80 appointments a year.

Level 5: Member (MNZM) Limited to 140 appointments a year.

Which New Zealander has the most royal honours?

It might be Catherine Tizard, who is a member of the Order of New Zealand (ONZ), and also a Dame Grand Cross of The Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (GCMG); a Dame Grand Cross of The Royal Victorian Order (GCVO); Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE), a companion of the Queen’s Service Order (QSO); and a Dame of Justice of the Order of Saint John (DStJ). The titles in bold are British honours.


Other NZ gongs: Queen’s Service Order (QSO); Queen’s Service Medal (QSM); New Zealand Antarctic Medal (NZAM); New Zealand Distinguished Service Decoration (DSD).

New Zealand Gallantry Awards: The Victoria Cross for New Zealand (VC); The New Zealand Gallantry Star (NZGS); The New Zealand Gallantry Decoration (NZGD); The New Zealand Gallantry Medal (NZGM).

New Zealand Bravery Awards: The New Zealand Cross (NZC); The New Zealand Bravery Star (NZBS); The New Zealand Bravery Decoration (NZBD); The New Zealand Bravery Medal (NZBM).

(Thanks to Rod Pascoe for his help in compiling this guide.)

This article was first published in the January 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.