Incoming New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins will prioritize the economy as a recession looms and may jettison some of Jacinda Ardern’s policies as he seeks to win back the political middle ground ahead of an October election.
“As prime minister, I will lead a team that’s focused and working hard to fix the big issues that so many families and businesses are facing,” Hipkins told a news conference Sunday in Wellington after the ruling Labour Party endorsed him to succeed Ardern. “I know that some New Zealanders feel that we are doing too much too fast, and I have heard that message.”
Labour, which is trailing the main opposition National Party in opinion polls, moved swiftly to unite behind Hipkins and ensure a smooth leadership transition following Ardern’s shock resignation last week.
While Ardern’s departure robs Labour of its most charismatic campaigner, Hipkins as a new leader has the ability to row back some of the party’s unpopular policies and help it regain support.
With an economic downturn expected as interest rates soar, he faces an uphill battle to win Labour a third term.
Hipkins used his first major press conference to stress his credentials as a “down-to-earth kiwi” and connect with disaffected voters who are doing it tough.
“Our focus will be on the right now and the bread-and-butter issues that people care about,” he said. “I know that people are worried about paying their grocery bills and paying their mortgages. I want them to know that we are on their side.”
Hipkins said he would be “running a ruler” over the government’s whole work program, but declined to give specifics before his cabinet has met.
“Over the coming week, cabinet will be making decisions on reining in some programs and projects that aren’t essential right now,” he said. “We will be focused on middle and low-income New Zealanders.”
Controversial policies that could come under scrutiny are the merger of state broadcasters TVNZ and Radio New Zealand and reforms to water infrastructure, both of which have become lightning rods for voter discontent.
Ardern alienated some voters with policies that involved co-governance between Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, and the Crown. Hipkins may seek to diffuse those concerns, though he must do so without angering the Māori members of Labour’s caucus.
“I think there is an uncertainty among New Zealanders around what we mean when we’re talking about co-governance,” he said. “I don’t want to get hung up on what has become a catchphrase.”
On foreign affairs, Hipkins said New Zealand’s relationship with China was “incredibly important economically” and a trip to the nation would be high on his priority list.
He named Carmel Sepuloni as deputy prime minister, the first Pasifika person to hold the role. She will replace Grant Robertson, who is expected to remain minister of finance.
Hipkins paid tribute to Ardern, “my very good friend,” saying the country was in a better place because of her.
“She’s been one of New Zealand’s great prime ministers,” he said. “Jacinda provided inspirational leadership through a quick succession of the biggest challenges our country has faced. She gave voice to those who are often overlooked in times of challenge and purposefully went about doing politics differently.”
Image credits: Mark Coote/Bloomberg