Bottom Line Up Front – I have no time for honorary commissions, degrees or other awards. You should either be eligible, do the work and earn it or go get your recognition some other way. Any other process totally undermines the hard work and dedication of those who get there by the traditional path. Granting honorary anything smacks of the awarder distributing largesse and, in the worst instances, involve self-aggrandisement as part of the process. In the NZDF, it needs to end.
That’s why I was disappointed to see the Royal New Zealand Air Force continuing the practice with the announcement in February this year that Dr Michelle Dickinson was to be appointed to the rank of Honorary Wing Commander. The one before that was Richie McCaw who was appointed Honorary Squadron Leader in 2009 and Wing Commander in 2017. Both have done a bit of work with the RNZAF. Great! Maybe they were paid? Even if not, the services have other mechanisms for recognising excellence. Each service chief as well the Commander Joint Forces and the Chief of Defence Force have their own commendation systems with badges, certificates etc. The award of honorary rank has plenty of genuine service personnel gritting their teeth.
I filed an OIA request to see how widespread the practice is. Since 2008, the Royal New Zealand Navy has handed out five honorary commissions in the rank of Captain. The RNZAF has also conferred five with two in the rank of Group Captain and three Wing Commanders. There are none from the NZ Army. The Army does appoint retired officers as Honorary Colonels of Regiments – a real role that I do not oppose. The Navy apparently provides no uniforms but the Air Force does.
Should a young service person, on seeing someone wearing the rank of a senior officer, be able to have a reasonable expectation of the leadership, service training and technical ability of the officer in front of them? I think so. In fact, this was the very reason why the Army changed its Officer Selection Board criteria in the 1990s to end the difference in pass standard between general (G) list officers and specialist (SPEC) officers. SPEC officers include doctors, nurses, lawyers and the like and are recruited for those skills. However, many are now deployed on operations and, in some circumstances may be the only officer present when trouble strikes. Soldiers have to be able to look to them for leadership with confidence and they can. If the NZDF wishes to commission the McCaws and Dickinsons of the world, it should be as Specialist Officers. Invite them to attend and pass officer selection and Specialist Officer training.
If the services wish to be inclusive in other ways, they have the mechanism of making people honorary members of the local officers’ mess. This is no different to a boating or golf club saying thanks for all your service to us – have a free lifetime membership. The process for applying, being selected and trained as an officer in the NZDF is gruelling. Why undermine it by giving rank away? Can you imagine the furore if a service chief appointed someone an honorary Warrant Officer? The Senior Non-Commissioned Officers would be in uproar.
Nothing I’ve written should be taken as seeking to demean the ability or contribution of those that have had honorary commissions conferred on them. However, recognition of their work should not undermine the everyday efforts of the full and part-time force personnel who work for years and, in most cases, never achieve the ranks that are being handed out. We got rid of the practice of buying commissions. This practice should follow suit. The Defence Act needs to be clarified on the matter.
Blatant Advertising Bit: Have you read my short story trilogy “A Poke in the Fifth Eye”? It’s available in Kindle format for only US99c under my nom de plume of Simon Roberts. A ripping good yarn about dirty bomb drone swarms in Wellington New Zealand, a couple of destroyed spy stations, an air force base on fire and only a hastily assembled bunch of Kiwi reservists standing between the terrorists and their ultimate goal.