Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Honours System is Anachronistic and Paternalistic

Once again in New Zealand we have had the announcement of the Queen's Birthday Honours, which of course are nothing to do with the Queen and are not announced on her actual birthday.  A more fitting name for them would be the "New Zealand Government Good Subject Awards" because they are a system of favours bestowed by the government of the day on those they consider to have been worthy.

The current honours system dates from medieval times when the monarch favoured those who supported him or her with lands, money and titles.  The good deeds that were considered most worthy back then would be regarded in most cases today as worthy only of a long sentence from the International Court of Justice, being acts of great cruelty and abuse of human rights such as the dispossession of the Catholics, the expulsion of the Puritans and the Jews, the subjugation of the Irish and the like.  The Queen no longer gives out land and money but her governments around the world still bestow titles on those who are in their favour. 

It has been interesting watching the changes over the years in the nature of the deeds considered worthy of honours.  As recently as thirty years ago, the ranks of the honours lists were full of successful businessmen.  In recent times, the selfish pursuit of wealth, with its consequential benefits to the entire nation, no longer merits honour.  If a businessman receives any recognition, it is only because of their service to some charity, sports foundation, or other 'worthy' pursuit.  Senior judges still get honoured almost as a matter of course, and similarly those from the senior ranks of the civil service.  The awards still remain a reward for political service, irrespective of whether the political colours of the recipient match those of the government doing the awarding (hence the National Government's award to Labour Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen).  It is a system of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" that members of successive governments dare not break for fear they will not get their turn.

The whole idea of a government honours system is inherently corrupt because it inverts the respective roles of government and citizen.  Governments should exist only to serve the citizen through a limited range of executive, legislative and judicial functions (which functions should be tightly defined in a written constitution - but that is for another blog).  The greatest statement of the role of governments ever written says, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed". In other words, citizens should be the masters of governments, not the other way around.  A government that presumes to reward its citizens for what it regards as good behaviour regards its citizens as subjects, not as masters.  Citizens should not compete for the government's favour, rather the government should compete for our favour.

For eight hundred years years since the signing of the Magna Carta Libertatum (the "Great Charter of Liberties"1), we in the West have fought to restrain the executive power of the monarch in favour of individual rights and self-determination.  It is time we cast off this anachronistic and paternalistic vestige of unrestrained power that is the Queen's Honours system.

1 We seem to have lost the "liberties" bit along the way.

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