WELLINGTON, Jan. 21 (Reuters) – Chris Hipkins, who played a key role in New Zealand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, will replace Jacinda Ardern as prime minister after she emerged on Saturday as the only candidate to win the ruling to lead the Labor Party.
Hipkins, 44, is expected to be confirmed as the new leader at a meeting of Labour’s 64 legislators, or Caucus, on Sunday.
“I think we are an incredibly strong team,” Hipkins told a news conference after the party announced him as the only candidate.
“We have been united through this process and we will continue to do so. I feel truly privileged to be working with such an amazing group of people who are truly committed to serving the people of New Zealand.”
Hipkins would not be charmed by his policy plans. A cabinet reshuffle proposed by Ardern would go ahead, but Treasury Secretary Grant Robertson would likely remain in office, he said.
He said he spoke to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who tweeted that the two had had “a warm discussion”.
In a surprise announcement on Thursday, Ardern said she had “no longer in the tank” to lead the country and would step down.
Hipkins was first elected to parliament for the Labor Party in 2008 and became a household name fronting the government’s response to the pandemic. He was appointed health minister in July 2020 before becoming the COVID response minister at the end of the year.
He is now minister of police, education and public service, as well as leader of the House.
A quick Horizon Research poll obtained by local media organization Stuff on Friday found Hipkins to be the most popular potential candidate among voters, with the support of 26% of those polled.
He has a big challenge ahead of him, said New Zealand’s Eva Murphy in Auckland.
“He will never fill the shoes that Jacinda has and it will be interesting to see what Labor comes out with in terms of the election campaign over the next year and we look forward to seeing what happens,” she said.
Hipkins’ confirmation by Labor lawmakers on Sunday afternoon is expected to be a formality. Ardern will then submit her resignation to the New Zealand Governor General 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 backing the opposition New Zealand National Party.
A Union-Curia poll of taxpayers released Friday, based on data prior to Ardern’s resignation announcement, showed Labor’s popularity fell to 31.7%, trailing the Nationals at 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 make an outstanding prime minister and we look forward to continuing our work together, for the remainder of this term and the next,” said Green Party co-leader James Shaw.
Reporting by Lucy Craymer; Additional reporting by Jill Gralow in Auckland; Edited by Deepa Babington, Rosalba O’Brien and William Mallard
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