SYDNEY - Poised to be New Zealand’s next prime minister, Mr Chris Hipkins became a household name leading the nation’s closed-border crackdown on Covid-19 and is seen as a “tough and capable” politician.
The 44-year-old police and education minister emerged on Saturday as his Labour Party’s sole contender to replace Ms Jacinda Ardern following her shock resignation barely 48 hours earlier. He is to be formally endorsed for the job on Sunday.
“I think we’re an incredibly strong team,” Mr Hipkins told a news conference after being announced as the sole candidate.
“We’ve gone through this process with unity and we’ll continue to do that. I’m feeling really fortunate to be working with such an amazing group of people who have a real commitment to the service of the people of New Zealand.”
Mr Hipkins won plaudits for his near two-year term as the Covid-19 response minister in a country that shut its borders to keep the coronavirus out, only fully reopening to the outside world in August last year.
He later conceded that rolling lockdowns were “tough going” and said they had to be eased as people wearied of the restrictions.
Political commentator Josie Pagani has described Mr Hipkins, with more than 14 years in opposition and government, as “sensible, likeable, tough and capable”.
A Horizon Research snap poll obtained by local media organisation Stuff on Friday showed that Mr Hipkins was the most popular potential candidate among voters, with the backing of 26 per cent of those surveyed.
On a lighter note, Mr Hipkins made a famous slip of the tongue in 2021 when he remarked that virus restrictions made it tough for Kiwis to “go out and spread their legs”, instead of stretching them.
Mr Hipkins has been police minister since June last year, a key role given criticism of the government’s record on crime, and previously served more than five years as education minister and public service minister.
“Chris is decisive and will be an incredibly strong prime minister,” said Justice Minister Kiri Allan, one of Labour’s senior Maori MPs, who had been considered a potential prime minister herself.
“He is extremely competent, with a track record of delivering for New Zealand as one of our most senior ministers over the past six years,” she said.
Mr Hipkins, who describes himself as an “outdoor enthusiast” keen on mountain biking, hiking and swimming, studied politics and criminology at Victoria University and then worked in the industry training sector.
Before becoming an MP in 2008, he worked as a senior adviser to two education ministers and former prime minister Helen Clark.
Although known as a personable and laid-back operator, Mr Hipkins was involved in some high-profile spats with Australia’s former conservative government.
In 2021, he accused Australia of “exporting its garbage” to New Zealand – a reference to Canberra’s controversial policy of deporting criminals back to their country of birth.
Mr Hipkins was admonished by Ms Ardern in 2017 after he was accused of playing a role in a dual citizenship scandal in the Australian parliament.
Then deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce was forced to stand down after information released to Mr Hipkins revealed Mr Joyce was a dual citizen of both Australia and New Zealand.
Australia’s constitution forbids federal politicians from sitting in parliament if they hold dual citizenship. Ms Ardern said at the time that Mr Hipkins’ actions were “unacceptable”.
A general election will be held on Oct 14, with some polls showing Labour will struggle to hold on to power.
A Taxpayers’ Union-Curia poll released on Friday based on data from before Ms Ardern’s announcement she would resign showed Labour’s popularity falling to 31.7 per cent, while the opposition New Zealand National Party was backed by 37.2 per cent of respondents. AFP, REUTERS