WELLINGTON, Jan 21 (Reuters) – Chris Hipkins, who played a key role in New Zealand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, was named prime minister on Saturday after Jacinda Ardern emerged as the sole candidate to lead the ruling Labor Party. .
Hipkins, 44, will be confirmed as leader at a meeting of Labour’s 64 lawmakers, or caucus, on Sunday after Ardern made the surprise announcement on Thursday that she “no longer has the tank” to lead the country and would leave.
“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 come through this process as a team and we will continue to do so. I am delighted to be working with an amazing group of people who are truly committed to serving the people of New Zealand.”
Hipkins, known as ‘Chippy’, had a reputation for competence in dealing with COVID-19 and was a problem-solver for Ardern when other cabinet ministers were struggling.
He is not involved in his political plans. Ardern’s proposed cabinet reshuffle is forthcoming, but she has said she plans to keep Grant Robertson as finance minister.
Hipkins said he spoke with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who tweeted that the two had a “warm discussion”.
Hipkins, who was first elected to Parliament as a Labor Party in 2008, has become a household name in the government’s response to the pandemic. He was appointed Minister of Health in July 2020 and later became the Minister for the COVID Response at the end of the year.
He is now the Minister of Police, Education and Public Service as well as Leader of the House.
A Horizon Research snap poll obtained by local media organization Stuff on Friday showed Hipkins was 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 plummeted amid concerns about tighter COVID restrictions, the rising cost of living and rising mortgage rates, and crime.
Rural voters who switched to Labor in 2020 after Ardern’s initial success against COVID have grown frustrated with the party and resent the government’s environmental and other regulations.
In Auckland, New Zealander Eva Murphy said Hipkins had a big challenge ahead of him.
“She will never fill Jacinda’s shoes and it will be interesting to see what Labor comes up with in next year’s election campaign and we look forward to seeing what happens,” he said.
Hipkins is expected to be formally confirmed by Labor on Sunday afternoon. 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.
The general election will be held on October 14, with some polls showing Labor trailing the opposition New Zealand National Party.
A Taxpayers’ Union-Curia poll released on Friday, based on data from before Ardern’s resignation, showed Labour’s popularity had fallen to 31.7%, trailing the Nationals at 37.2%.
Labour’s traditional coalition partner, the New Zealand Green Party, said in a statement it looked forward to working with Hipkins.
“Chris will be an excellent Prime Minister and we look forward to continuing to work together throughout this term and into the next,” Green Party co-leader James Shaw said.
Report by Lucy Kramer; Additional reporting by Jill Gralow in Oakland; Edited by Deepa Babington, Rosalba O’Brien, and William Mallard
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