'Tough and competent': Who is New Zealand's next prime minister Chris Hipkins?

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By Euronews  with AFP/AP/Reuters
Chris Hipkins talks to reporters outside parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2022
Chris Hipkins talks to reporters outside parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2022   -  Copyright  Nick Perry/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

Chris Hipkins is set to become New Zealand's next prime minister after emerging on Saturday as the only candidate to lead the ruling Labour Party.

The 44-year-old will replace Jacinda Ardern, loved by many, who made a shock announcement this week that she had 'no more in the tank' and was throwing in the towel. 

"I hope New Zealanders see me as someone who is outspoken, unafraid to admit mistakes and who is self-deprecating," Hipkins told reporters after he had been selected. 

But who is he? 

Hipkins -- known as 'Chippy' -- became a household name during the COVID pandemic. He took a largely crisis management role, sealing the country's borders, and built a reputationfor competence in tackling the virus. 

Still, this was not without the odd gaffe. At a press conference in August 2021, Hipkins made an X-rated faux pas when he told people during a lockdown they could still go outside and "spread their legs" -- something which drew plenty of mirth online.

He admitted last year that people were fed up with tough pandemic restrictions, describing border closures as "difficult".

Despite his role during the pandemic, Hipkins and other liberals stood in the shadow of Ardern, a global icon of the left who exemplified a new style of leadership.

'Tough and competent'

Hipkins has served as Police Minister since June 2022, besides holding the education portfolio.

He is more of a centrist than Arden and is known as a political trouble-shooter, taking on a variety of roles to iron out problems created by other lawmakers. 

His role overseeing policing is significant, as crime has become a key criticism of Arden's government. 

Political columnist Josie Pagani called Hipkins "sensitive, sympathetic, tough and competent".

The 44-year describes himself as an 'outdoor enthusiast' who enjoys mountain biking, hiking and swimming. He studied politics and criminology at the University of Victoria and later worked in the industrial training sector.

Although known as a kind and easy-going conversationalist, Hipkins was embroiled in high-profile feuds with Australia's former Conservative government.

In 2021, he accused Australia of "exporting its rubbish" to New Zealand -- a reference to Canberra's controversial policy of deporting criminals to their country of birth.

A few years earlier, Hipkins was admonished by Ardern for his role in a dual citizenship scandal in the Australian Parliament.

Then-deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce was forced to resign after information given to Hipkins revealed Joyce was a dual citizen of both Australia and New Zealand.

Australia forbids politicians from sitting in parliament if they hold dual nationality.

At the time, Ardern said Hipkins' actions were "unacceptable". 

'He is extremely capable'

Hipkins' political experience is seen by some commentators as a feather in his cap. 

Previously, he served for more than five years as Minister of Education and Minister of Public Service. Before becoming an MP in 2008, Hipkins was the senior adviser to two ministers and former Prime Minister Helen Clark. 

He “will be an incredibly strong prime minister,” said Justice Minister Kiri Allan, a Maori Labour MP, herself considered for the leader post. 

"He is extremely capable and has proven himself for New Zealand as one of our most important ministers over the past six years." 

It is not clear how he will lead, with Hipkins not getting drawn into discussing policy plans with reporters on Saturday. 

A lawmaker for 15 years, he is considered more centrist than Ardern and colleagues hope that he will appeal to a broad range of voters.

But the Labour politician faces an up hill struggle, with an upcoming election this year. 

Opinion polls have indicated that his party is trailing its main opponent, the conservative National Party.

Among his biggest challenges 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%. 

Some economists are predicting the country will go into recession this year.