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Why Chris Hipkins Faces a Tough Road Ahead as New Zealand’s Leader

As the dust settles on Jacinda Ardern’s five-and-a-half-year premiership, New Zealand swore in her successor, Chris Hipkins, as its 41st Prime Minister Wednesday. But Hipkins could be braced for a brief tenure ahead of October’s general election, as the ruling Labour Party trails in the polls and recession looms.

Ardern—a revered global figure—cited burnout as she announced her shock resignation on Jan. 19, and Labour MPs swiftly rallied behind Hipkins, the 44-year-old Education Secretary. He was unanimously selected as their formal endorsement last week.

“This is the biggest privilege and responsibility of my life,” Hipkins said, after a swearing-in ceremony at Government House, Wellington. “I’m energized and excited by the challenges that lie ahead.”

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Hipkins has vowed to focus on “bread and butter issues” and economic improvement in the nine months preceding the next general election.

Below, what to know about New Zealand’s new Prime Minister, and the challenges that lie ahead for him and his party.

Who is Chris Hipkins?

Chris Hipkins, known affectionately by peers as “Chippy,” has been a Labour MP for Remutaka since 2008. He grew up in the Hutt Valley, north of the capital Wellington, with parents who he has said came from “relatively humble beginnings and worked really hard to provide a good life” for himself and his brother.

In the late 1990s, when Hipkins was a first-year university student, he was arrested for entering parliament grounds to protest against an education bill put forward at the time by the center-right National-led government. He fought an almost decade-long battle to dispute the arrest and was awarded compensation and an apology. He has reportedly cited this as the “defining moment” that ignited his political career.

Hipkins was later a senior advisor to two education ministers and served in the office of former Prime Minister Helen Clark. Since then, he was selected as a Cabinet Minister by the Labour Party caucus in 2017, as the party formed a coalition government with the Greens. He has served as minister of education, public service, the police, and leader of the House of Commons. He is a father to two children.

Read More: Jacinda Ardern Led With Her Heart. That’s One Reason She’s Leaving Now

What is Hipkins known for?

Hipkins is a familiar face in New Zealand. His profile grew in July 2020, as he led the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as Ardern’s health minister, and later that year the COVID-19 response minister. New Zealand adopted a strict zero-COVID-19 approach that kept the country’s total death toll at 2,437, low by global standards.

But while New Zealand’s record on COVID-19 is favorable, anger had been mounting over the length and severity of lockdown restrictions. Like Ardern, Hipkins may similarly struggle to move beyond his association with the pandemic.

Beyond New Zealand’s pandemic response, Hipkins has a “Mr. Fixit” reputation, with Ardern having often called upon him to support her in tackling policy issues. “I’ve dealt with some challenging situations over the last five and a half years, the last couple of years particularly,” Hipkins said Saturday. “And, you know, I’m a human being. I’ll make the odd mistake from time to time. I try and own the mistakes that I make.”

Viewed as a competent figure, the new leader has previously leaned into gaffes with humor. In August 2021, amid a nationwide lockdown where the government was urging people to maintain social distancing while spending time outdoors, Hipkins appeared on live television and urged people to“spread their legs” instead of stretch their legs. He later posed at a news conference in September 2021 with a mug that said “spread your legs, not the virus.”

Hipkins also made international headlines in September when his unusual “weakness” for sausage rolls resulted in him being given a sausage roll birthday cake by police officers.

What challenges does Hipkins face as Prime Minister?

Hipkins made it clear in his speech Saturday that he knows it’s a “challenging time” for New Zealanders. “COVID-19 and the global pandemic created a health crisis, and now it’s created an economic one—and that’s where my government’s focus will be,” he said.

Hipkins added that his government will prioritize tackling the cost-of-living crisis. The new leader said he would achieve this by “reining in” non-essential projects.

While Ardern was a broadly popular figure on the global stage, her decision to step down was partly motivated by the Labour Party’s tumbling poll figures. According to a 1News-Kantar poll released in December, Labour’s support fell to 33% from 40% at the start of 2022—a figure that would rule out forming a coalition with the Green Party. As things stand, the opposition National Party is likely to claim a victory in October unless Hipkins can reverse these numbers.

Hipkins has drawn a lot of comparisons to Ardern. Christopher Luxon, leader of the National Party, congratulated him on his new role but made a jibe that he could not steer the country to a better place. “New leader, same story,” he said.

Hipkins has sought to distance himself from his predecessor, telling a television journalist Monday, “I supported Jacinda Ardern as our Prime Minister, I think she did an amazing job. But look—we’re different people, and we’ll have a different style.”

On Saturday, Hipkins said that his priority was to “provide opportunities for all Kiwis who want to work hard, to be able to work hard and get ahead and provide a better life for themselves and for their families.”

The leader has nine months to prove it.