WELLINGTON – Former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday received one of New Zealand's highest honors for her service leading the country through a mass shooting and pandemic.
Ardern was made a Dame Grand Companion, the second-highest honor in New Zealand, as part of King Charles III's Birthday Honors. It means people will now call her Dame Jacinda. Royal honorees are typically chosen twice a year in New Zealand by the prime minister and signed off by Charles, the British king who is also recognized as New Zealand's king.
Ardern was just 37 when she became prime minister in 2017, and was seen as a global icon of the left.
She shocked New Zealanders in January when she said she was stepping down as leader after more than five years because she no longer had “enough in the tank” to do it justice.
She was facing mounting political pressures at home, including for her handling of COVID-19, which was initially widely lauded but later criticized by those opposed to mandates and rules.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, who succeeded Ardern, said she was being recognized for her service during "some of the greatest challenges our country has faced in modern times.”
“Leading New Zealand’s response to the 2019 terrorist attacks and to the COVID-19 pandemic represented periods of intense challenge for our 40th prime minister, during which time I saw firsthand that her commitment to New Zealand remained absolute," Hipkins said in a statement.
Fifty-one Muslim worshippers were killed during Friday prayers in the 2019 attack at two Christchurch mosques by a white supremacist gunman.
Within weeks of the attack, Ardern led major changes to New Zealand's gun laws by banning assault weapons. More than 50,000 guns were handed over to police during a subsequent buyback scheme.
Ardern said she was in two minds about whether to accept the award because much of what she was being recognized for were experiences that were collective to all New Zealanders.
“So for me this is about my family, my colleagues and all those who supported me to do that incredibly rewarding job," she told 1News.
Ardern will be temporarily joining Harvard University later this year after she was appointed to dual fellowships at the Harvard Kennedy School. She has also taken on an unpaid role combatting online extremism.
Also recognized in the King's Birthday Honors list was rugby coach Wayne Smith, who helped lead both men's and women's rugby teams representing New Zealand to World Cup victories.
In keeping with tradition, Britain's Queen Camilla was given the top award by being appointed to the Order of New Zealand.