Chris Hipkins will become New Zealand’s next prime minister after MPs of the ruling Labour party made the 44-year-old their unanimous choice to replace outgoing leader Jacinda Ardern.
Hipkins, the country’s education minister, will lead Labour into elections this October with his party behind in the polls and facing a backlash against the country’s economic and pandemic management.
Although lacking the star power of the charismatic Ardern, analysts said the quietly competent and casual Hipkins — whose role in leading the country’s Covid-19 response helped to earn him the ‘Mr Fixit’ tag — may suit a party that has lost touch with “middle New Zealand”.
Hipkins, who entered the parliament building alongside his long-term ally Ardern and embraced her before the vote took place, ran unchallenged for the party leadership. He will be sworn in as New Zealand’s 41st prime minister on Wednesday in what has proved to be a smooth and rapid handover.
Carmel Sepuloni was named as deputy prime minister. She will be the first ‘Pasifika’ — a New Zealander from Pacific island descent — to hold the role.
Hipkins immediately set out an agenda to refocus his Labour government on “bread and butter issues” as the government under Ardern had been seen by the public as trying do “too much, too fast”.
“The world is facing a new challenge: a pandemic of inflation,” he said of the country’s cost of living crisis.
Christopher Luxon, who leads the rival National party, congratulated Hipkins on his sudden elevation but questioned how far he would move from Ardern’s agenda. “New leader, same story,” he said.
Hipkins entered parliament in 2008, eleven years after he was arrested and escorted from its grounds for protesting against the education policies of the then National-led government, an event he credited with propelling him into politics.
The elevation of the MP for Remutaka, known in New Zealand political circles as “Chippy”, to the prime ministership was triggered by Ardern’s abrupt resignation after saying she did not have the energy for another term as leader.
Danyl McLauchlan, an academic at Victoria University of Wellington school of biology, said Hipkins had earned a “hyper-competent” reputation for being put into difficult portfolios, including education and policing.
McLauchlan said polling in recent days — with both Labour and Ardern dropping in popularity heading into the October election — vindicated the switch to Hipkins, who was “the only candidate with a chance of turning around Labour’s chances” against the rival National party, led by Luxon.
Hipkins paid tribute to Ardern’s “calm, stable, reassuring leadership” during some of the most challenging circumstances in the country’s history. “However, we are different people,” he said, drawing a line between himself and his predecessor.
McLauchlan said Hipkins was unlikely to generate the same level of vitriol from the opponents of Ardern’s New Zealand’s pandemic policies — which had risen to “demonic” levels over the past year — despite his central role in the Covid-19 response. “He is very prominent but he doesn’t live rent free in the heads of hundreds of thousands of New Zealander protesters,” he said.
The New Zealand Green party, Labour’s traditional coalition partner, said in a statement that it was looking forward to working with Hipkins.
“Chris will make an excellent prime minister and we look forward to continuing our work together, for the rest of this term and the next,” said Green co-leader James Shaw.
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