WELLINGTON: Education Minister Chris Hipkins is set to become New Zealand’s next Prime Minister after being the only candidate to enter the competition on Saturday to replace Jacinda Ardern.
Hipkins, 44, still needs to get approval from his Labor Party colleagues on Sunday, but that is now just a formality. An official transfer of power will take place in the coming days.
“Today is a great day for a Hutt boy,” Hipkins said, referring to the Hutt Valley near Wellington where he grew up. “I’m really humbled and really proud to take on this. It is the greatest responsibility and the greatest privilege of my life.
Ardern shocked the nation of 5 million on Thursday when she announced she was stepping down after five and a half years in the lead role.
The lack of other candidates indicated that party lawmakers had rallied behind Hipkins to avoid a drawn-out contest and any sign of disunity after Ardern’s departure.
Hipkins will have just over eight months in the role before running in the general election. Opinion polls have indicated that Labor is trailing its main challenger, the Conservative National Party.
Hipkins rose to public prominence during the coronavirus pandemic, when he took on some kind of crisis management role. But he and other liberals have long been in the shadow of Ardern, who has become a global icon of the left and exemplified a new style of leadership.
Just 37 when she became leader, Ardern has been praised around the world for her handling of the country’s worst mass shooting and the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But she faced mounting political pressure at home and a level of vitriol from some that previous New Zealand leaders had not encountered. Online, she was subjected to physical threats and misogynistic rants.
“Our society could now usefully ask itself if it wants to continue to tolerate the excessive polarization that makes politics an increasingly unattractive vocation,” wrote former Prime Minister Helen Clark.
Fighting back tears, Ardern told reporters on Thursday that she was leaving her post no later than February 7.
“I know what this job takes, and I know I don’t have enough left in the tank to do it justice. It’s as simple as that,” she said.
In addition to holding the Education portfolio, Hipkins is also Minister of Police and Civil Service, and House Leader. He is known as a political troubleshooter who has taken on various roles in an attempt to solve problems created by other legislators.
But he also made his own blunders, such as when he told people during a virus lockdown that they could go out and “spread their legs”, a comment that caused a lot of joy on the internet.
Hipkins drew a small crowd of cheering onlookers as he spoke to reporters outside Parliament. He said he came back full of energy after a summer break, considered himself a hard worker and a straight shooter, and had no intention of losing his sense of humor in his new role.
He said he would not announce any changes to political or ministerial roles before Sunday’s vote, except to say Grant Robertson would remain finance minister. Hipkins said he believed he could win the election and paid tribute to Ardern.
“Jacinda Ardern has been an incredible premier for New Zealand,” Hipkins said. “She was the leader we needed when we needed her.”
A lawmaker for 15 years, Hipkins is seen as more centrist than Ardern and his colleagues hope he will appeal to a wide range of voters.
One of his biggest challenges in an election year will be convincing voters that his party is managing the economy well.
New Zealand’s unemployment rate is relatively low at 3.3%, but inflation is high at 7.2%. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand has raised the benchmark interest rate to 4.25% as it tries to tame inflation, and some economists are predicting the country will enter recession This year.
Watch All About Chris Hipkins: New Zealand’s Next Prime Minister After Jacinda Ardern

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