Chris “Chippy” Hipkins will be New Zealand’s next prime minister and Labour’s new leader, landing him perhaps his largest “fix-it” job of them all.
Hipkins, 44, is a senior high-profile minister in the Labour Government, highly regarded as a hard worker and “Mr Fix-it” of the caucus for swooping in to take on some of the toughest roles, while retaining a relaxed and at times self-deprecating approach.
An MP since 2008, Hipkins was thrust into the public spotlight in 2020, taking over the role of leading the Covid-19 response from David Clark and guiding the country through the toughest moments of the pandemic.
He currently holds the portfolios of education and police, the latter of which he took over from Poto Williams last year after she came under intense scrutiny from National.
On Friday, he was keeping quiet on any motivations to become leader, even indicating departing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had not signalled him her successor, but this morning he emerged as the party’s only nominee.
He now needs to obtain the support of two-thirds of the party’s MPs when they meet as a caucus on Sunday to become leader and Prime Minister, following Ardern on Thursday announcing her shock resignation after more than five years in the role. If chosen, Hipkins will be Prime Minister leading up to the election, set for October 14 this year.
Hipkins - nickname “Chippy” - is currently MP for Remutaka, and immediately prior to Ardern’s announcement ranked fifth in the caucus, as Minister of Education, Minister of Police, and Minister for the Public Service and the Leader of the House.
Hipkins last year separated from his wife, with whom he has two young children. The family had been based in Upper Hutt.
Hipkins has largely kept his family out of the public limelight, but has spoken in the past about ensuring despite the demands of the job he gets to spend quality time with his children.
Indeed, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson, in congratulating Hipkins, said one of the first things that “pops into my mind is that he is an amazing dad”.
“His care and love for his kids is something I so admire.”
An outdoor enthusiast, Hipkins is keen on mountain biking, swimming and tramping. He cycles sometimes to work from Upper Hutt, about an hour-long ride, which he has said is part of his commitment to sustainability.
Speaking to media on Saturday, Hipkins said he was “humbled and honoured” by the opportunity to become Prime Minister, saying it was “a big day for a boy from the Hutt”.
Born in 1978 and raised in the Hutt Valley near Wellington, Hipkins attended Hutt Valley Memorial College, where he was the head boy, and went on to complete a bachelor of arts majoring in politics and criminology at Victoria University.
He said his parents had come from “relatively humble beginnings”, values that had been passed down in raising him and his brother.
After completing his study, he worked in the industry training sector and then at Parliament, first as senior adviser to two education ministers and later in the office of former Prime Minister Helen Clark. He has also spent time backpacking around Europe on an OE, including a stint living in London at the same time as Ardern.
He has said previously he entered politics “accidentally”, becoming involved in student protests against rising fees while at university.
He was arrested, but the charges were later dropped, the court ultimately found the arrest unjust, and police issued him an apology and compensation.
He said that moment had got him interested in politics at a national scale.
He entered Parliament as MP for Remutaka in 2008 - the same year as Ardern - and became the spokesperson for education in 2013.
Former Labour Party president Mike Williams was chair of the selection panel that chose Hipkins as a candidate. He told the Herald Hipkins was “very intelligent” and a hard worker, and he was not surprised to see him become the frontrunner to take over from Ardern.
Hipkins is regarded as more of a centrist politician within the left-leaning Labour Party, but has stood strongly for classic Labour values around wealth distribution and worker rights, and is passionate about education.
In his maiden speech in 2008, against the backdrop of the Global Financial Crisis, he railed against the “mantra of individualism” in politics of the 1980s and 1990s, reflecting on how he had seen impacts on families of the “great rolling back of the State” under Rogernomics and National’s following “mother of all Budgets”.
He urged the country to rediscover our “our sense of community spirit and responsibility”.
“We need to move past the notion that our welfare system should be little more than a safety net at the bottom of that ladder.
“It can and it should help people up. I have little time for those who, having climbed that ladder themselves, think it is their right to pull it up behind them.”
As Covid-19 Response Minister, Hipkins was involved in some of the toughest decisions, including the Auckland lockdown, which he later said he regretted had gone on so long.
Often fronting the country in live updates, the response was a chance for Hipkins to also display his light-hearted personality.
During a press update in Kāpiti at the end of 2021, Hipkins was nearly half an hour late, and his mum, with whom he and his family had been staying, made sure to come out and apologise to the waiting media.
He soon appeared emerging from the bush to address the media, a photo of which later became the subject of many memes online.
Hipkins also became well-known – particularly on social media – for some of his slips of the tongue.
In 2021, he went viral online when he made an unintentional X-rated error, telling Kiwis about how they should socially distance when they “spread their legs”.
“It is a challenge for people in high-density areas to get outside and spread their legs when they are surrounded by other people,” he said, when he clearly meant “stretch their legs”.
Rather than shy away, Hipkins embraced the moment, even acquiring a mug that made fun of his gaffe, adding moments of humour to the otherwise intense Covid-19 press conferences.
Hipkins then followed it up last year with another hilarious comment about “pashing on the dancefloor”.
When pressed on why you had to wear a mask in a supermarket and not at a nightclub, Hipkins weighed in on the popular nightlife act.
“It’s a question of volume. There are going to be a lot more people in a supermarket on a weekly basis than there will be out and about pashing on a dancefloor.”
There were also more serious controversies, including in October 2021 when Northland was sent into an 11-day lockdown after it was alleged three “sex workers” with possible gang connections crossed the Auckland border.
The women were publicly vilified for crossing the border. The then-Covid-19 Response Minister Hipkins accused them of using “false information to travel across the border”.
Documents released under the Official Information Act showed the women, who had earlier been blamed for using “false information” to get travel permits, had no links to gangs and weren’t sex workers, as had been suggested.
Among the documents released is a summary of a police investigation into the women which found “no offence” and no “deception” in obtaining the travel documents.
He never apologised for nor corrected the reports that the women were “gang-related sex workers”.
At the start of last year, Hipkins also came under fire for making incorrect statements about New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis, including that she ignored consular assistance, and had shared her personal information publicly.
He eventually apologised after months of mounting pressure and the prospect of legal action.
Hipkins has also not shied away from controversy across the Tasman. In 2017, the then-Liberal-led Australian government accused Hipkins of trying to bring it down after he revealed then-Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was a dual citizen by descent, making him ineligible for the role.
The Australian government inferred Hipkins, who gained the information through Parliamentary questions, was part of a plot between the opposition in New Zealand and Australia to “steal government”.
His current transtasman relations appear to be in good shape, at least under the Labour government there, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese the first world leader to congratulate Hipkins over the phone.
Hipkins said it would be a priority to visit Australia and meet Albanese soon in person.