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Wellington: Six months out from the New Zealand election, Kiwis just might be falling into the embrace of the unassuming everyman Chris Hipkins.
The new Labour leader is enjoying an extended honeymoon as prime minister after unexpectedly taking the top job from Jacinda Ardern.
The DIY-loving, sausage roll-eating, “exer-cycling” single dad makes an unlikely national leader.
New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins mingles at the Upper Hutt Cosmopolitan Club after attending a dawn service on Anzac Day.Credit: Getty
He might also be Labour’s ticket to a third term, which had seemed a dubious prospect as time ticked down on Ardern’s tenure.
New Zealanders will go to the polls on October 14, and Labour is locked in a tight race with centre-right opposition National.
Under Ardern, Labour produced its biggest election win since World War II in 2020, polled above 40 per cent through 2021, but dipped into the 30s and behind National in 2022.
Jacinda Ardern, as outgoing PM, and Chris Hipkins.Credit: Bloomberg
“People were ready to move on,” one party campaigner said.
It’s just no one expected to move on to Hipkins, and no one expected him to be so popular.
In the aftermath of the shock leadership transfer, he led Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon by one point in preferred prime minister polling.
Now, Hipkins leads by 10.
Other indicators have improved: Labour now holds a narrow lead in the party vote, and government approval is trending upwards. In his first interview with an international outlet since taking office, Hipkins projects cautious optimism about the poll results.
“It was pleasant,” he said.
“You’d certainly prefer to start that way than to start with people going, ‘oh I can’t stand him’. So it was nice. It was encouraging.”
Pleasant sums up Hipkins to a tee. The 44-year-old is affable but lacks Ardern’s charisma or inspirational qualities.
On recent school visits, he battled awkward silences and on trips to cyclone-ravaged regions, he struggled to connect with residents in the way Ardern was famed for.
Party bosses clearly think Hipkins has work to do lifting his profile: in a recent leaflet, the suited leader is pictured next to the heading, “Kia ora, I’m Chris”.
There’s little doubt what he stands for: “bread and butter” issues, a tagline repeated ad nauseam.
The prime minister has pared back the government’s agenda and tacked towards the political centre, focusing on cost-of-living issues.
He has shed more than $NZ1.2 billion ($1.1 billion) of projects – including planks of Ardern’s emissions-reducing plan – to cut the government’s cloth to the times, while deferring hate speech reforms, a public media merger and its troubled Auckland light rail project.
This refreshed platform is consistent with his political brand: a safe pair of hands.
A comparison can be made to Australia’s Anthony Albanese – both plain-spoken leaders with working-class roots.
Chris Hipkins, left, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese tuck in at a citizenship ceremony in Brisbane.Credit: AP
In Hipkins’ case, those roots lay in the Hutt Valley, the downtrodden northern region of Wellington, where the Remutaka MP has lived his entire life.
He is also a rarity in politics: a single-dad prime minister.
Hipkins has a six-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter with his former partner Jade, from whom he separated last year.
The bachelor says he isn’t looking for love – “the job doesn’t leave a lot of time for other stuff” – but he has a date for the King’s coronation on Saturday.
“I’m taking [Opposition Leader] Christopher Luxon,” he laughs, before resetting and describing the toughness of combining politics and parenthood.
“Time outside of work is largely focused on my kids. My kids are still very young, so I want to spend that time with them … there’s no question it’s hard to be anything better than an average parent when you’re doing this job.”
Another titbit about Hipkins – his love of sausage rolls – is now coming back to haunt him.
The pastry treat is now on the prime minister’s menu with great frequency in his travels across the country, as if he was a judge on the Great New Zealand Sausage Roll Bake Off.
“It’s fun. It’s nice,” he insists, “I wasn’t kidding when I said I like sausage roll.”
In the new job, the keen cyclist is also struggling to commute by bike, forcing him to find exercise where he can.
“It’s more likely to be the exer-cycle in the living room at home because it’ll be dark, or it’ll be late. An outdoor bike ride just requires a lot more organisation now,” he said.
“Spontaneity starts to disappear from your day-to-day life [as prime minister]. Everything is planned.
“It definitely took a while to get used to it. I’m in the zone now.”
Hipkins was never touted as leader until January, when Ardern announced her exit and quickly ruled out deputy Grant Robertson as a replacement.
A shocked caucus soon settled on the loyal lieutenant and Ardern ally, best known for his efforts as COVID-19 minister.
That was not an easy post, becoming synonymous with an increasingly unpopular pandemic response, including mandates, opening and closing the trans-Tasman bubble, and fronting decisions over delayed vaccines, lockdowns and border woes.
Hipkins believes those calls have, with time, earned him respect.
“Naturally, we carry some political baggage from that,” he said.
“But we also carry that experience which we can then apply to the challenges that are in front of us. That actually sets us up quite well.”
The hurdles to a third term are still mighty.
Labour has picked up plenty of barnacles in office, relentlessly accused by the opposition of wasteful spending or bungled infrastructure.
Economic conditions favour National, with Labour presiding over high inflation (though receding from 7.2 per cent to 6.7 per cent in the last CPI figures), and an economy which contracted in the last quarter.
A Labour win would also defy electoral history. None of the six prime ministers to inherit the job mid-term since WWII have won the following election.
“It’s a challenge. There’s no question about that,” Hipkins said.
“We can lead New Zealand through this current economic difficulty coming out the other side better and stronger. That’s going to require experienced political leadership which I can deliver.”
Just don’t expect Ardern to be involved.
After her mic drop, the 42-year-old removed herself from the public arena to make space for her close friend.
Labour fundraised off her valedictory speech, asking members to donate or buy a commemorative tea towel, but she isn’t expected to return to the campaign trail.
“I don’t think she’s going to be in the country,” Hipkins said, referring to Ardern’s Harvard University fellowships which begin in August.
Would Hipkins like Ardern to pitch in and be involved?
“If she wants to be, but I mean, I haven’t really spoken to her about it,” he says, showing the distance from New Zealand’s heady days of Jacindamania.
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