With the shock resignation of Jacinda Ardern on Thursday, the New Zealand Labour party is now racing to find her replacement, a politician who will be tasked with leading the country – and the party – into the October election.
Their choices represent a potential crossroads for the party – and for New Zealand’s perception on the world stage, where it has built an outsize reputation for progressive leadership. Ardern will be a hard act to follow.
Polling released on Friday – based on data from before Ardern’s resignation – placed her party at 32%, compared with National’s 37%. Right and left-wing coalition partners Act and the Greens were sitting at 11% apiece.
Those results, a continuation of trends from late 2022, map out a very difficult road to re-election for Labour. Should it prioritise continuity and experience to right the ship? Or, as with Ardern’s selection on the eve of the 2017 election, should it grasp for the momentum and sense of possibility offered by a new face?
While Labour will be focused on finding the candidate that resonates in-country, giving the best possible election chances, their selection will also be closely watched globally. Ardern’s personality and profile - as a young mother and progressive, leading the most diverse parliament in New Zealand history – increasingly propelled the country on to the international stage. For overseas liberals, she and Aotearoa took on near-symbolic status as a liberal enclave amid the pressures of Trumpism, rightwing resurgences, misinformation and anti-democratic movements.
On Sunday, the party caucus will meet and vote on a new leader. If one candidate secures two-thirds of the vote, they will take the helm of the party – if not, the vote will then go to the party’s wider membership to make a selection. Here are the contenders.
Hipkins – known as “Chippy” because of the acronym and somewhat schoolboyish demeanour – is the most experienced political hand of the candidates, and the frontrunner for the role. He is seen within Labour as a safe pair of hands and has spent the last term juggling high-profile portfolios – currently as minister for education, minister for police, and leader of the House. Until mid-2022, he was tasked with leading New Zealand’s Covid response, and – albeit with some hiccups – kept reasonably steady control of the enormously complex legislative and communication undertakings of pandemic governance. That period raised his public profile – during lockdowns, he was a fixture on the nation’s TV screens. He has elements of the unpretentious, self deprecating humour that New Zealanders tend to embrace in their politicians: going viral for a pandemic-era gaffe in which he encouraged New Zealanders to go outside and “spread their legs”, and more recently for celebrating his birthday with a cake constructed entirely of sausage rolls.
On Friday, he bemused the nation with his sartorial choices: clad in a baseball cap, Abercrombie hoodie and wraparound reflective glasses, he was stopped in the street by reporters to discuss the upcoming caucus meeting. “Don’t interview me in my tracksuit, that’s not fair,” he laughed. “When I’m appropriately dressed, I’ll be happy to talk to you.”
Working for him: his experience, debate-chamber ability, fashion nous, deep knowledge of legislative cogs. Against him: an association with pandemic response has become far less desirable as time has worn on. His selection would also leave Labour with two white men at the top – a problem for a party priding itself on its diversity and progressive credentials, and unlikely to provide much desired contrast with the opposition leader, Christopher Luxon.
If selected, Allan would make history as the country’s first Māori prime minister and first openly gay leader. A relative newcomer to politics, the ex-lawyer was elected in 2017 on the Labour party’s list, and won her seat under her own steam in 2020. Now minister for justice, she has made a name with her calm, low-key composure during moments of crisis – an attribute that echoes some of the strengths Ardern brought to the role. She won fans for her crisp, chatty communication during a tsunami warning in 2021. It was later revealed that Allan had fronted radio interviews for the emergency while undergoing testing and receiving a diagnosis for stage 3 cervical cancer.
Working for her: Charisma, humour, and calm under fire. Allan’s swift rise has marked her as a talented MP, and as leader she could offer some of the freshness and momentum that drew voters to Labour upon Ardern’s selection in 2017. Against her: relative inexperience makes her very much an outside choice, particularly for a government facing a tough election ahead.
Wood is also a relative political newcomer, having entered parliament in 2016. Since then, however, he has ushered through one of Labour’s signature policies for workers: fair pay agreements, which significantly increase the collective bargaining power of low-wage workers. For a government that has struggled to get some of its ambitious reform packages across the line, it represents a key legislative achievement of the past year. Wood’s best chance may be if no candidate secures the required two-thirds of the vote, and it is pushed out to the members and unions.
Working for him: a signature policy achievement to tout to the Labour caucus and base, a growing reputation as a safe pair of hands. Against him: inexperience, particularly compared with Hipkins, and the same double-white-man problem.
Robertson would have been an obvious frontrunner for the job. The minister of finance and deputy prime minister has governed New Zealand’s finances through the pandemic, from which it emerged with extremely high employment, wage growth and strong performance on GDP. He has credibility with the business community, and his economics acumen could present a strong foil to opposition leader Christopher Luxon, an ex-aviation executive. A highly experienced political player, known as Ardern’s right hand, his time as deputy leader means his profile is high. If selected, he would be New Zealand’s first openly gay prime minister. He has, however, ruled himself out of the contest – releasing a statement on Thursday that he would not stand as leader. Candidates occasionally become leaders despite this – Ardern herself had said she didn’t want the job shortly before she took it. Working for him: experience, profile, economic chops and continuity with Ardern. Against him: doesn’t want the job.