The story so far: The new government will be focusing on New Zealand’s “bread and butter issues,” the ruling Labour Party’s new leader Chris Hipkins said in an interview on Monday, January 23, after being chosen as leader by his party.
He was sworn in as the country’s new Prime Minister on Wednesday, following the unprecedented resignation of Jacinda Ardern, who gained global popularity for her charismatic leadership and “politics of kindness”. Mr. Hipkins, Labour’s only nomination for the top job, held multiple portfolios in the outgoing Ms. Arden’s administration, including that of Education and Police.
Who is Chris Hipkins?
Chris Hipkins, 44, is a Labour Party politician who entered the New Zealand Parliament as an MP for Remutaka in 2008 — the same year as Jacinda Ardern. Born in the largely working-class Hutt Valley near the capital Wellington in 1978, he studied in the Hutt Intermediate school and attended the Hutt Valley Memorial College (later Petone College). “It’s a big day for a boy from the Hutt,” Mr. Hipkins said, ahead of receiving his party’s endorsement for the new job, adding that his parents came from “relatively humble beginnings”. Hutt, while close to the capital, is a region burdened by comparatively lower incomes, higher poverty rates, and “rougher edges” than Wellington, a report by The Guardian notes.
Mr. Hipkins earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Victoria University in Wellington, majoring in politics and criminology. In his maiden address in the country’s Parliament, he said that his interest in politics spiked when he was arrested during a protest as a first-year college student. In September 1997, hundreds of people, including many students, marched to the Parliament grounds in the capital, protesting the government’s tertiary education policy as turning “academic entities into corporate entities, and treating students as customers”. He was among the many students arrested and detained overnight by the Wellington police, on charges that were later proven unjust and dropped in a court ruling.
The legal battle dragged on for over a decade, during which time Mr. Hipkins became a students’ association leader, and much later, a senior adviser at former Prime Minister Helen Clark’s office and Parliament member. The legislature’s speaker in 2009 offered an apology and compensation to those students who were arrested.
Mr. Hipkins worked in the industry training sector for a short while before entering politics. He shares a close relationship to Ms. Arden, having entered politics around the same time — in 2020, he even married long-time partner Jade in a ceremony organised at Ms. Ardern’s official residence, with Finance Minister Grant Roberson as best man.
The nickname “Chippy” has stuck to Mr. Hipkins since his university days, and is what most lawmakers in the House call him. He is known to be an “outdoor enthusiast”, fond of hiking, mountain biking, and swimming.
What role has he played in New Zealand’s governance?
In late 2007, when Mr. Hipkins received the Labour Party’s nomination for the Remutaka seat instead of former senior MP Paul Swain, Mr. Swain described him as the “face of modern Labour.”
“He represents the rejuvenation that Prime Minister Helen Clark has been calling for,” he said in an interview with The New Zealand Herald.
Since his 2008 win, he has been reelected from the same seat four times and spent nine years in the Opposition. Upon entering the legislature, he worked as the party’s spokesperson for internal affairs and was made the chief whip after the 2011 elections. He was also subsequently the party’s State Services and Associate Education spokesperson.
After Ms. Arden came to power in 2017, Mr. Hipkins has handled multiple critical portfolios. As Education Minister, he spearheaded various reforms, including the closure of New Zealand’s charter schools and the integration of polytechnics; he has also called for inclusivity in the country’s schools. He also became the Leader of the House.
In 2020, he briefly became the Health Minister after the incumbent David Clark was forced to resign over a scandal involving breaking COVID-19 curbs. In late 2020, he was entrusted with the country’s COVID-19 Response portfolio by Ms. Arden, following which he became a household name, fronting daily virtual briefings about the status of the pandemic, along with the occasional gaffe. He became popular for his straightforward and pragmatic approach and empathy with citizens, acknowledging that they were bound to get frustrated with the pandemic curbs at some point. This eventually happened, affecting Labour’s popularity. “We’ve been asking people to live with uncertainty for 18 months … People are tired,” he told The Guardian in mid-2021.
Mr. Hipkins is popularly known in the country’s political circles as a troubleshooter or “Mr. Fixit”, taking on a variety of roles to iron out problems created by other lawmakers. He is also known to be a “cutthroat” political player in the legislature, with substantial experience in the Opposition. Ben Thomas, a former national government adviser called him ”one of those people who would have lodged…hundreds or thousands of written questions.”
In 2022, Ms. Ardern’s administration called on Mr. Hipkins once again during a turbulent time, handing him the Police Ministry at a time when law and order concerns were affecting the government’s ratings.
While political analysts in Wellington say he may not bring to the table the star power and charisma of Ms. Adern, former Cabinet member Lain Lees-Galloway told The Spinoff “his instincts around what matters to people in their normal day-to-day lives” would appeal to the public.
Speaking to the press on Saturday, Mr. Hipkins said “Jacinda provided calm, stable, reassuring leadership, which I hope to continue to do. We are different people though, and I’m sure that people will see that.” Calling out the hate and misogynistic comments that Ms. Ardern faced from those in politics, he said it was a reminder that “we’ve got a way to go to ensure women in leadership receive the same respect as their male counterparts”.
What challenges lie ahead as he takes over the country’s leadership?
Labour is facing dwindling ratings in opinion polls, trailing its main opponent, the conservative National Party. With citizens still frustrated in the aftermath of pandemic restrictions, and a cost of living and mortgage crisis, Mr. Hipkins has only eight months as Prime Minister before general elections take place in October. Inflation in the country is at a three-decade high at 7.2%. New Zealand’s Reserve Bank has hiked the benchmark interest rate to 4.25% as it tries to get soaring prices under control, and some economists are predicting the country will go into recession this year.
While it is yet to be seen if he can gain the mandate of New Zealanders and get the ruling party another term later this year, Mr. Hipkins has expressed a belief that he can win the election.