Chris Hipkins is set to become New Zealand’s next prime minister

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Education Minister Chris Hipkins is set to become New Zealand’s next prime minister after he was the only candidate entered in the contest on Saturday to replace Jacinda Ardern.

Hipkins, 44, is yet to receive confirmation from his Labor Party 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,” Hipkins said, referring to the Hutt Valley near Wellington, where he grew up. “I’m really humbled and really proud to take on this. 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 at the helm.

The lack of other candidates suggested that party lawmakers had rallied behind Hipkins to avoid a protracted contest and any sign of disunity following Ardern’s departure.

Hipkins will remain in the role for just over eight months before he will contest a general election. Opinion polls have shown that Labor is lagging behind its main opponent, the Conservative National Party.

Hipkins came to public attention during the coronavirus pandemic when he took on a sort of crisis management role. But he and other liberals have long been overshadowed by Ardern, who has become a global left icon and pioneered a new style of leadership.

Ardern was just 37 when she became leader and was lauded around the world for her handling of the nation’s worst mass shootings and the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But she has faced mounting political pressure at home and a level of vitriol from some that previous New Zealand leaders have not faced. Online, she faced physical threats and misogynistic swear words.

“Our society might now usefully consider whether to continue tolerating the excessive polarization that is making politics an increasingly unattractive profession,” wrote former Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Ardern fought back tears and told reporters Thursday that she would leave the position no later than February 7.

“I know what this job takes and I know I don’t have enough in the tank left to do it justice. It’s that simple,” she said.

In addition to holding the education portfolio, Hipkins is Secretary of Police and Civil Service and Chairman of the House of Representatives. He is known as a political troubleshooter who has taken on a variety of roles to try and iron out problems created by other lawmakers.

But he’s also made some gaffes of his own, like telling people during a virus lockdown that they could go outside and “spread their legs,” a comment that drew a lot of cheering across the internet.

Hipkins drew a small crowd of clapping onlookers as he spoke to reporters outside Parliament. He said he’s returned from a summer break full of energy, considers himself a hard worker and straight-forward shooter, and doesn’t plan to lose his signature sense of humor in his new role.

He said he would not announce any changes to political or ministerial roles ahead of Sunday’s vote, other than to say Grant Robertson would remain Treasury Secretary. Hipkins said he believed he could win the election and paid tribute to Ardern.

“Jacinda Ardern was an incredible Prime Minister for New Zealand,” Hipkins said. “She was the leader we needed at the time we needed her.”

Hipkins has been a lawmaker for 15 years and is seen as more centrist than Ardern, and colleagues hope he 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 the benchmark interest rate to 4.25% in a bid to bring inflation under control and some economists are predicting the country will slide into recession this year.

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