WELLINGTON, Jan 21 (Reuters) – Chris Hipkins, who has played a significant role in New Zealand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is poised to replace Jacinda Ardern as prime minister after emerging on Saturday as the only candidate to lead the ruling Labor Party.
Hipkins, 44, is expected to be confirmed as leader at a meeting of the 64 Labor Party lawmakers, or Caucus, on Sunday, succeeding Ardern, who made a surprise announcement on Thursday that she had “no more in the tank” to lead the country and would retire.
“I think we’re an incredibly strong team,” Hipkins said at a news conference after the party announced him as the sole candidate.
“We have gone through this process with unity and we will continue to do so.” I feel truly fortunate to work with such an amazing group of people who have a real commitment to serving the people of New Zealand. “
Known as ‘Chippy’, Hipkins built a reputation as a go-getter in dealing with COVID-19 and helped Ardern troubleshoot when other cabinet ministers were struggling.
He would not be attracted by his political plans. Ardern’s proposed cabinet reshuffle will go ahead, but he said he plans to keep Grant Robertson as finance minister.
Hipkins said he had spoken to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who tweeted that the two had a “warm discussion”.
First elected to parliament by the Labor Party in 2008, Hipkins has become a byword for the government’s response to the pandemic. He was appointed Minister of Health in July 2020, before becoming Minister for the COVID Response at the end of the year.
He is now Minister for Policing, Education and Community Services as well as Leader of the House.
An emergency Horizon Research poll, obtained by local media organization Stuff on Friday, showed Hipkins as the most popular potential candidate among voters, with 26% of those polled supporting him.
Although Ardern was popular at the start of her five-year term, her approval ratings have slumped amid a backlash against strict COVID restrictions, rising costs of living and mortgage rates and concerns about crime.
Rural voters who flocked to Labor in 2020 after Ardern’s early success against COVID have resented the party, angered by the government’s growing environmental and other regulations.
Hipkins has a big challenge ahead of her, New Zealander Eva Murphy said in Auckland.
“He’s never going to take Jacinda’s place and it will be interesting to see what Labor comes up with in terms of the election campaign next year and we’re looking forward to seeing what happens,” she said.
Labor’s confirmation of Hipkins on Sunday afternoon is expected to be a formality. Ardern will then tender her resignation to the Governor-General of New Zealand before Hipkins is appointed.
If confirmed, Hipkins will be prime minister until the end of the party’s term.
A general election will be held on October 14, with some opinion polls showing Labor trailing the opposition New Zealand National Party.
A Taxpayers’ Union-Curia poll published on Friday, based on data from before Ardern’s resignation, showed Labor’s approval rating had fallen to 31.7%, behind National’s 37.2%.
The New Zealand Green Party, Labour’s traditional coalition partner, said in a statement they looked forward to working with Hipkins.
“Chris will be an excellent Prime Minister and we look forward to continuing to work together through the end of this term and into the next,” said Green Party co-leader James Shaw.
Reporting by Lucy Cramer; Additional reporting by Jill Gralow in Oakland; Editing by Deepa Babington, Rosalba O’Brien and William Mallard
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