Chris Hipkins is set to become New Zealand’s next prime minister after being named as the Labour party’s sole nominee to replace outgoing leader Jacinda Ardern.
Hipkins, the country’s education minister, had been regarded as a likely successor to Ardern, who announced this week she would step down as prime minister by February, ending her five-year term as leader.
The 44-year-old was named in a Labour party statement on Saturday morning, local time, after his bid for the leadership of the party was unchallenged.
Hipkins, who was first elected to parliament in 2008, is expected to be confirmed as new leader on Sunday, when the party’s 64 lawmakers meet.
He entered parliament 11 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.
Hipkins is well known within New Zealand after he lead the country’s Covid-19 response and appeared regularly alongside Ardern at press briefings to detail the measures taken by the government.
The elevation of the MP for Remutaka, known in New Zealand political circles as “Chippy”, to the prime ministership was triggered by the abrupt resignation of Ardern from the role on Thursday after she said she did not have the energy to pursue another term as leader.
He is a long-term political ally of Ardern, and both were staffers for Helen Clark, the former New Zealand prime minister. He has gained a reputation as a “Mr Fixit” since entering parliament.
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 Christopher Luxon.
Hipkins — known for his casual attire — told reporters that he was confident he would win the election. “I think the New Zealand public have seen the work I have done,” he said.
He 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.