Chris Hipkins has been confirmed as New Zealand’s next prime minister after the ruling Labour Party endorsed him to succeed Jacinda Ardern as its leader.
Hipkins, 44, received unanimous support from Labour’s 64-strong caucus in a meeting on Sunday, he told a news conference in Wellington. He will be officially sworn in on January 25.
“I take on this job at a challenging time for New Zealanders,” Hipkins said. “Covid-19 and the global pandemic created a health crisis, and now it’s created an economic one, and that’s where my government’s focus will be.”
With a tough election set to be fought in October, Labour has moved swiftly to unite behind Hipkins and ensure a smooth leadership transition after Ardern’s shock resignation last week. While he may lack Ardern’s charisma, Hipkins is better placed to row back some of Labour’s unpopular policies and help it regain the political center ground.
Hipkins described himself as a “down-to-earth kiwi.”
With the central bank predicting a recession this year as it hikes interest rates to battle inflation, Hipkins said he will focus squarely on the economy and “helping New Zealanders through these tough economic times.”
“Our focus will be on the right now and the bread-and-butter issues that people care about,” he said. “I know that people are worried about paying their grocery bills and paying their mortgages. I want them to know that we are on their side.”
The government will rein in some non-essential projects, he said, but declined to give specifics before cabinet has met.
“We certainly will be focused on running a ruler over the whole of the government’s work program to make sure that we are focused on the things that are going to make a difference to New Zealanders,” Hipkins said.
He named Carmel Sepuloni as deputy prime minister, the first Pasifika person to hold the role. She will replace Grant Robertson, who is expected to remain minister of finance.
Hipkins paid tribute to Ardern, “my very good friend,” saying the country was in a better place because of her.
“She’s been one of New Zealand’s great prime ministers,” he said. “Jacinda provided inspirational leadership through a quick succession of the biggest challenges our country has faced. She gave voice to those who are often overlooked in times of challenge and purposefully went about doing politics differently.”
Hipkins, who has two young children and is separated from his wife, said he wanted his family to retain its privacy.
“When you’re in the public spotlight, as I have been, particularly during the Covid-19 response, it’s bloody hard,” he said. “I’ve also seen the enormous scrutiny and pressure placed on Jacinda and her family. And so my response to that will be to keep my family completely out of the limelight. And so I just ask New Zealand to respect that.”
Hipkins said New Zealand “is the greatest little country in the world” and becoming its prime minister “is the biggest privilege and biggest responsibility of my life.”
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