A new prime minister for New Zealand has been chosen by the Labour party after the shock resignation of Jacinda Ardern on Thursday.
Chris Hipkins, the country’s minister for education and policing and one of the primary architects of its Covid response, was nominated uncontested by the caucus on Saturday morning. While the party caucus has yet to formally endorse his selection – that is due to occur on Sunday – he was the only MP nominated for the role, after efforts by senior MPs to achieve consensus and secure a smooth transition in Ardern’s wake.
An experienced MP with a ruthless streak in the debating chamber and an intimate knowledge of the machinery of government, Hipkins will face perhaps the biggest challenge of his political career – persuading New Zealanders to grant the Labour party another term in government, without Ardern’s star power at the helm.
Around New Zealand, Hipkins will be best known as the face and primary implementer of the country’s Covid elimination strategy, a role that saw him taking the podium next to Ardern for weekly updates as the pandemic evolved.
That background may help and hinder him: it gave him a significant profile and made him a household name, but also gives him immediate associations with a chapter many New Zealanders are now hoping to put behind them, and which has galvanised a small, radical and often vitriolic core of anti-vaccine opponents.
A career politician who has held office since 2008, Hipkins is perhaps the safest choice for Labour. Of the candidates considered for the role, he is most capable of stepping immediately into the work of governance and carrying the government’s legislative agenda through to the October election.
Over the last term, as well as meaty portfolios in education, Covid response and policing, he has been leader of the house and public service minister, two wonky roles that are deeply immersed in the nuts and bolts of governance and provide an intimate knowledge of the political process.
Speaking to the Guardian in 2021, he said one of his political strengths was “Understanding how the machinery of government operates, which is something that I’ve developed over about 20 years.
“I’ve watched people come into politics from outside, very talented people, very knowledgable, with a lot of subject matter expertise – but they’ve struggled to get the machinery of government to do what they wanted to do. And I like to think that I’ve managed to – I’m not perfect – but that I’ve managed to kind of figure that out.”
While that makes him well-equipped to carry Labour’s last sets of reforms through, his larger battle will be on the campaign trail. Curia polling released on Friday – drawn from before Ardern’s resignation – placed her party at 32%, compared with National’s 37%. Right- and left-wing coalition partners Act and the Greens were sitting at 11% apiece.