Our honours system is a way for New Zealand to say thanks and well done to those who have served and those who have achieved. We believe that such recognition is consistent with the egalitarian character of New Zealand society and enlivens and enriches it.
(Report of the Prime Minister's Honours Advisory Committee, September 1995)
Elements of the system
The New Zealand Royal Honours system, which is administered by the Honours Unit, is made up of the Order of New Zealand, the New Zealand Order of Merit, the Queen's Service Order and associated Queen's Service Medal, the New Zealand Bravery and Gallantry Awards, the New Zealand Distinguished Service Decoration, and the New Zealand Antarctic Medal. Over the years there have also been some special or one-off awards, such as the New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal, and the New Zealand Suffrage Medal 1993.
See the following document for a diagram showing the seniority of various New Zealand honours:
As well as these core elements, the armed forces and uniformed services also have medals for their personnel, which are administered by those agencies. For a complete list of all the orders, decorations and medals that are officially part of the New Zealand Royal Honours system, see the honours listed in the New Zealand order of wear.
Development of the system
The New Zealand Royal Honours system is a uniquely New Zealand system. The final honours lists are approved by The King of New Zealand, on the Prime Minister's advice, as The King is New Zealand's Head of State.
The history of our honours system mirrors changes in New Zealand's constitution, from a Crown Colony to a Dominion, and from a Dominion to a fully independent constitutional monarchy or realm.
From 1848 to 1975, New Zealand shared in the British-based honours system.
In 1975, the Queen's Service Order and associated Queen's Service Medal were introduced, making the system a mix of British and New Zealand Honours.
In 1987, the Order of New Zealand was introduced.
In 1995, the system was comprehensively reviewed by a committee established by the then Prime Minister. The committee sought public submissions on the system, and reported back to the Prime Minister with a number of recommendations. A number of changes were made to the system as a result. The most significant was the establishment of the New Zealand Order of Merit in May 1996, which replaced New Zealand's use of the Order of the British Empire.
See here for a history of the New Zealand honours system written by the New Zealand Herald of Arms.