Chris Hipkins, New Zealand’s New Leader, Hopes to Put Ardern Behind Him

Days after Jacinda Ardern’s surprise resignation as New Zealand’s prime minister, her soon-to-be-successor, Chris Hipkins, was trying to put distance between himself and Ms. Ardern in a flurry of interviews.

“I supported Jacinda Ardern as our prime minister, I think she did an amazing job,” he told one television journalist on Monday. “But look: We’re different people, and we’ll have a different style.”

Mr. Hipkins, 44, who is due to be sworn in as prime minister on Wednesday, now has nine months to persuade voters who cooled on Ms. Ardern’s leadership that he offers a fresh alternative before a general election in October.

The problem? Mr. Hipkins and Ms. Ardern may have different styles, but when it comes to policy, their similarities are far more pronounced.

“It is very much a government going on the same track as it was before, but with a different face,” said Bernard Hickey, a political commentator based in Auckland.

Christopher Luxon, who is almost certain to be Mr. Hipkins’s opponent in the Oct. 14 election, has made the same point. “There’s no change, it’s just more of the same — that’s because it is essentially the same team,” Mr. Luxon, the leader of the center-right National Party, said on Sunday.

Mr. Hipkins was one of the architects of the Ardern government’s key policies, along with Ms. Ardern herself and her deputy, Grant Robertson, who will remain as finance minister under Mr. Hipkins. The three have been close for years; they were advisers to Helen Clark, the former Labour Party prime minister, and became members of Parliament at the same time, in 2008. Mr. Hickey described their shared political outlook: “Fiscal conservatives, broadly social liberals, very aware of the political center.”

In terms of style, Mr. Hipkins does differ from Ms. Ardern. He is scrappier and more combative, with sharper debating instincts.

Mr. Hipkins and Ms. Ardern on Tuesday in Whanganui, New Zealand. Credit…Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

He also lacks the megawatt charisma that made Ms. Ardern an international political star. Ms. Ardern has graced the pages of Vogue; Mr. Hipkins, by contrast, has the kind of aesthetic that New Zealanders call “daggy” (think wraparound sunglasses and a Diet Coke in hand).

He often refers to himself as “a boy from the Hutt,” short for the Hutt Valley, the unfashionable industrial area where he grew up. The father of two children, who he has said will play no part in his political life — another contrast with Ms. Ardern, who brought her daughter to the United Nations — Mr. Hopkins presents himself as a likable everyman.

That attitude may resonate with some New Zealanders, especially outside urban centers, Mr. Hickey said.

“Chris Hipkins will be able to present himself as a different flavor, simply because of that Hutt background,” he said. Even his occasional gaffes — during a Covid lockdown, he once famously said that New Zealanders wanted to “spread their legs,” when he meant “stretch” — may benefit him, Mr. Hickey added.

“There’s a self-deprecating ‘look at me, I’m a klutz’ thing about people in public life in New Zealand,” he said, “which is designed to present someone as just like everyone else, not better than their peers, and someone that can be trusted and worked with.”

Variously responsible for education, health, New Zealand’s Covid-19 response and policing, Mr. Hipkins has built a reputation as a Mr. Fix-It, a practical figure capable of hard work, said Grant Duncan, a lecturer at Massey University in Auckland.

“He gets stuck in, and he fixes problems,” he said. “I think New Zealand is pretty familiar with him by now.”

Handing out Covid tests last year in Auckland, New Zealand. As health minister, Mr. Hipkins became closely associated with New Zealand’s response to the pandemic.Credit…Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

There has been speculation that Mr. Hipkins might edge away from Ardern policies and approaches that, to many voters on the right, have become symbols of left-wing government overreach — like “co-governance,” which refers to involving Indigenous New Zealanders in policy decisions. Already, commentators have noted Mr. Hipkins’s preference for calling the country New Zealand, as opposed to Aotearoa, the Maori name favored by Ms. Ardern.

Echoing comments made by Ms. Ardern last year, Mr. Hipkins has promised to make pocketbook concerns his priority. “Our focus will be on the right now, on the bread-and-butter issues that people care about,” he said on Sunday. “Some people, many people are hurting at the moment, and I want them to know that we are on their side.”

But problems like inflation, a housing crisis and significant child poverty are likely to be daunting. “There is no answer, because most of the inflation that we’re seeing in the country is because of what’s happening around the world,” said Shamubeel Eaqub, an economist based in Auckland. “There is no New Zealand response to global inflation.”

Some of Mr. Hipkins’s decisions under Ms. Ardern’s leadership may also haunt him, said Dr. Duncan, the Massey University lecturer.

As education minister, Mr. Hipkins oversaw a mostly unsuccessful merger of technical colleges that led to some high-profile resignations. Financial difficulties in higher education continue. He and his ministry have been criticized for his response to high rates of truancy in New Zealand and failing to deliver on a raft of promises for school leavers.

But he is better known for his daily news conferences during the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic, and the hardships once caused by New Zealand’s stringent Covid policies are what many people associate him with.

Hence his attempt to put Ms. Ardern’s government behind him, and to present himself as a fresh face, as he tries to appeal to the centrist, middle-class New Zealanders who have migrated from Labour to National.

“His basic mission at the moment — possibly Mission Impossible — is to turn that tide around,” Dr. Duncan said.

On Tuesday, Ms. Ardern’s last full day in office — after which she would become a mere backbench Labour lawmaker until she resigns from politics altogether in April — she made it clear that she would help Mr. Hipkins keep his distance.

“You won’t find me commentating on domestic politics,” she said in the village of Ratana, where she and Mr. Hipkins spoke at a gathering of politicians and Maori elders. “I’ve had my time, and it’s now for the new team.”

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