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Knights and dames congratulated by PM

Published: 7:41AM Saturday August 01, 2009 Source: NZPA

Seventy-two New Zealanders have accepted knighthoods under a revision of our honours system.
These distinguished Kiwis will now carry the titles of Sir or Dame, though not everyone who was offered the title has accepted.

Prime Minister John Key congratulated the 72 who took the chance to become knights and dames.

People who were appointed Principal and Distinguished Companions of the New Zealand Order of Merit since Labour abolished the titles had to choose whether they wanted a title after Key's government reintroduced them in March.

Of the 85 people eligible, 72 accepted.

"This is a real celebration of success and I am very pleased that 87% of those eligible for a title thought so as well," Key said.

"I also respect those who chose not to change their status."

New Zealand actor Sam Neill says he rejected a knighthood because the idea of a title was "just far too grand, by far". His views were echoed by other well known figures, such as Maori activist and author Dr Ranginui Walker, who said there was "a certain snobbishness" attached to knighthoods.

Neill and Walker were among the 13 who declined, while Sir Colin Meads, Sir Peter Snell and Dame Jenny Shipley were among those who accepted.

Sir Colin Meads says nothing has changed since he accepted the title.

"A few of my mates when I go down to the club give me a bit of a ribbing about it and that sort of thing and I have told them they don't have to call me Sir Collin and I will deal to anyone who does but i don't think anything will change much in Te Kuiti. It's as much about them though as it is about me," says a very humble Sir Colin.

Theologian Lloyd Gerring justified his accepting, saying it will make things simpler for him.

"I do a lot of public speaking and when I am introduced they go to a lot of trouble to say I would have been a knight under the old system. This is going to make it a lot simpler, no explanation required," says Gerring.

Both Australia and Canada have dropped knighthoods.

Many of the Kiwis who declined the honourary title say they did so because it's a step backwards, away from independence and back to Britain.

Neill, who starred in films such as The Piano and Jurassic Park, said while he had nothing against the titles, and the alternative system was "somewhat confusing", he would not like to be known as Sir.

"All modesty aside, I find the idea of a title for myself just too grand at this time of my life," he said.

Children's author Joy Cowley, who declined to become a Dame, said she did not want people start treating her differently because of a title.

"I've also got an honorary doctorate and I get embarrassed whenever that comes up on an envelope," she said.

"I don't like anything that separates me from other people - I value my ordinariness."

Potter Len Castle said the reinstatement of the title system did not reflect contemporary New Zealand society.

"I think the change that the prime minister made is a retrograde step and I see in it a regression to the hem of the royal petticoat."

Walker said he was also disappointed that DCNZM was not given the credence it deserved.

"I didn't have any qualms about accepting the DCNZM because it's a New Zealand award and not tied to mother Britain or our imperial past."

Walker had been scathing of knighthoods because of the wealthy businessmen who got them, such as Sir Michael Fay and Sir Roger Douglas.

"I felt that the knighthood system had been rather denigrated, or degraded," he said in March, when the changes were announced.

Writer Vincent O'Sullivan says New Zealand does not seem to want to get rid of its colonial mindset.

"We want to jump back as quickly as we can to a kind of imitation mimicking society that in a sense is aping the original Britishness and the reason we are here is that our forebears couldn't get away from it fast enough," says O'Sullivan.

Ngatata Love does not see it that way and says accepting the title is a move forward for Maori

"The title is about the work we have done together. So I left the decision to them and they came back and said yes it must be taken as its not only about you its about what's happened and what's been done by all the people," says Love.

Dame Margaret Shields, a former Labour Cabinet minister, said reintroducing knights and dames was an appropriate way to recognise achievements, in a way the DCNZM could not.

Dame Margaret received her title for her work supporting women's rights.

"One of my jobs was to take honour back to women, so I thought it was important for me to accept this honour. There is a feeling that it belongs to the community, not just to the individual."

Under the new system there will be five grades of achievement.

The top two levels replace the Principal and Distinguished Companion of the Order of Merit and will become knights and dames.

The other three remain the same.

The titles will be officially bestowed at a ceremony at Old St Paul's in Wellington on August 14.