WELLINGTON, Jan 21 (Reuters) – Chris Hipkins, who has played a significant role in New Zealand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is set to replace Jacinda Ardern as prime minister after emerging on Saturday as the sole candidate for the leadership of the ruling Labor Party.
Hipkins, 44, is expected to be confirmed as the new leader at a meeting of Labour’s 64 lawmakers, or Caucus, on Sunday.
“I think we’re an incredibly strong team,” Hipkins said at a news conference after the party announced him as the only candidate.
“We have gone through this process with unity and we will continue to do so. I feel truly fortunate to work with such an incredible group of people who have a real commitment to serving the people of New Zealand.”
Hipkins would not be drawn to his political plans. A cabinet reshuffle proposed by Ardern would go ahead, but Finance Minister Grant Robertson would likely continue in that role, he said.
He said he spoke to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who tweeted that the two had “a warm discussion”.
In a surprise announcement Thursday, Ardern said she had “nothing left in the tank” to lead the country and would step down.
First elected to parliament for the Labor Party in 2008, Hipkins has become a household name for the government’s response to the pandemic. He was appointed Minister of Health in July 2020 before becoming Minister for COVID Response at the end of the year.
He is now Minister of Police, Education and Civil Service, as well as House Leader.
A Horizon Research snap poll obtained by local media organization Stuff on Friday showed Hipkins was the most popular potential candidate among voters, with support from 26% of those polled.
He has a big challenge ahead of him, said New Zealander Eva Murphy in Auckland.
‘He will never fill Jacinda’s shoes and it will be interesting to see what Labor comes out with in terms of the election campaign over the next year and we can’t wait to see what happens,’ she said .
Confirmation of Hipkins by Labor lawmakers on Sunday afternoon is expected to be a formality. Ardern will then submit his resignation to the Governor General of New Zealand before Hipkins’ appointment.
If confirmed, Hipkins will serve as premier until the end of the party’s term.
A general election will be held on October 14, with opinion 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 was announced, showed Labor’s popularity falling to 31.7%, behind the Nationals at 37.2%.
The New Zealand Green Party, a traditional Labor coalition partner, said in a statement it looked forward to working with Hipkins.
“Chris will make a great 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; Editing by Deepa Babington, Rosalba O’Brien and William Mallard
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