WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Education Minister Chris Hipkins will be New Zealand’s next prime minister after becoming the only candidate to enter Saturday’s competition to replace Jacinda Ardern.
Hipkins, 44, has yet to get approval from his Labor colleagues on Sunday, but that is now just a formality. An official transfer of power will take place in the coming days.
“It’s a big day for a Hutt boy,” said Hipkins, referring to the Hutt Valley near Wellington, where he grew up. “I am really humbled and very proud to take this on. It is the greatest responsibility and the greatest privilege of my life.”
Ardern shocked the nation of 5 million people on Thursday when she announced she was stepping down after five and a half years in the top role.
The lack of other candidates indicated that party legislators had aligned themselves with Hipkins to avoid a protracted contest and any sign of discord following Ardern’s departure.
Hipkins has just over eight months before running for general election. Opinion polls have shown Labor following its main opponent, the conservative National Party.
Hipkins rose to 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 became a global icon of the left and illustrated a new style of leadership.
Ardern was just 37 when she became leader and has been praised around the world for her handling of the country’s worst-ever 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 faced. Online, she fell victim to physical threats and misogynistic tirades.
“Our society could now usefully reflect on whether it will continue to tolerate the excessive polarization that makes politics an increasingly unattractive profession,” wrote former Prime Minister Helen Clark.
Fighting back tears, Ardern told reporters on Thursday that she would be leaving the position no later than Feb. 7.
“I know what this job demands, and I know I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple,” she said.
In addition to the education portfolio, Hipkins also serves as Minister of Police and Public Service and Speaker of the House of Representatives. He is known as a political problem solver who has taken on various roles to solve problems created by other legislators.
But he’s also made some blunders of his own, such as when he told people during a virus lockdown that they could go outside and “spread their legs,” a comment that caused hilarity on the internet.
Hipkins drew a small crowd of clapping spectators as he spoke to reporters outside parliament. He said he would come back energized after a summer break, consider himself a hard worker and a straight shooter, and had no intention of losing his signature sense of humor in his new role.
He said he would not announce any changes to policy or ministerial roles before Sunday’s vote, except that Grant Robertson would remain Treasury Secretary. Hipkins said he believed he could win the election and paid tribute to Ardern.
“Jacinda Ardern has been an incredible Prime Minister for New Zealand,” said Hipkins. “She was the leader we needed when we needed him.”
Hipkins has been a legislator for 15 years and is considered more centrist than Ardern and colleagues hope will appeal to a wide range of voters.
One of his biggest challenges during 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 its benchmark interest rate to 4.25% to bring inflation under control, and some economists are predicting the country will slip into recession this year.