Jacinda Ardern, a self-described republican who has said she expects New Zealand will leave the embrace of the British monarchy in her lifetime, has been made Dame Grand Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
The former Prime Minister, who resigned in January, is among 182 recipients named in the King’s Birthday and Coronation Honours list today, but the only one to be made a Dame or Knight Grand Companion.
The honour, for services to state, is the second-highest available after the Order of New Zealand - for which ordinary membership is limited to 20 living persons at any time.
Dame Jacinda, who led New Zealand through five mostly tumultuous years that included the terror attacks on two Christchurch mosques, the Whakaari/White Island volcanic eruption and the Covid-19 pandemic, said she felt “incredibly humbled” by the honour.
After the announcement last year that Dame Cindy Kiro would be New Zealand’s next Governor-General, Ardern told reporters her Government prioritised issues they saw as a priority - and no one had raised with her the idea of New Zealand becoming a republic.
“I’m not of the view that in the here-and-now in my term of office, that this is something New Zealanders feel particularly strongly about... but I do still think there will be a time and a place; I just don’t see it as now.”
In a written statement to the Herald on today’s honours, Dame Jacinda admitted being “in two minds” about accepting the accolade.
“So many of the things we went through as a nation over the last five years were about all of us rather than one individual.
“But I have heard that said by so many Kiwis who I have encouraged to accept an honour over the years. And so for me this is a way to say thank you - to my family, to my colleagues, and to the people who supported me to take on the most challenging and rewarding role of my life.”
She declined to comment further.
New Zealand’s 40th Prime Minister, she came to power after kingmaker, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, opted to form a coalition with the second-polling Labour Party in 2017.
Three years later, she was able to form a majority Government alone - the first under MMP - after Labour won 50 per cent of the vote.
Polling day had come after strict lockdowns and border closures saw New Zealand twice eliminate Covid-19 in 2020, while suffering few deaths compared to most other countries, including rich Western nations.
But Ardern, who had earlier won praise here and overseas for her compassionate and quick response to a gunman’s murder of 51 worshippers at two Christchurch mosques - she led Parliament to ban most semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles within a month of the attack - faced increasing pressures in her second term.
Delays in the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, which forced Auckland to spend months in varying levels of lockdown and to be isolated from the rest of the country during the Delta variant outbreak, along with the managed isolation and quarantine lottery system and angst from some over vaccination mandates - in part sparking a weeks-long protest and occupation of Parliament grounds in early 2022 - chipped away at her popularity.
There were policy triumphs. After calling climate change her generation’s “nuclear free moment”, Ardern’s Government banned future oil and gas exploration, reformed the Emissions Trading Scheme and, with cross-party support, passed the Zero Carbon Bill.
She also established the 2018 Families Package, which included increasing paid parental leave to 26 weeks, the Healthy School Lunches programme, providing a million lunches a week, and measures to reduce child poverty including an accountability process to measure and monitor the issue - though some experts say progress has been slow.
And although Covid-19 has been largely in the rear-view mirror in the last year, cost of living pressures - exacerbated by continuing housing unaffordability amid soaring interest rates and food inflation - saw some pundits predicting Labour faced an impossible task at this year’s election under Ardern.
In January, the 42-year-old made the decision to go.
She’d hoped over summer to find the energy and heart to continue in the role, she said.
“But I have not been able to do that... I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.”
As well as plans to “finally” marry her partner Clarke Gayford, after Covid-19 disrupted their planned nuptials, and take daughter Neve to her first day of school, Ardern initially revealed no other ambitions once her final political duties as Mt Albert MP ended in April.
She has since been named a special envoy to the Christchurch Call, joined the Earthshot board and - almost a year after graduating students gave her a standing ovation during her widely-reported commencement speech - returned to Boston’s Harvard University as the first tech governance leadership fellow at the Berkman Klein Centre.
Ardern will be studying ways to improve content standards and platform accountability for extremist content online, and artificial intelligence governance and algorithmic harms.
“While I’ll be gone for a semester (helpfully the one that falls during the NZ general election!), I’ll be coming back at the end of the fellowships,” she wrote on Instagram.
“After all, New Zealand is home!”