New Zealand’s new prime minister has said responding to cost of living pressures is his government’s “absolute priority”, as his swearing-in coincided with the release of stubbornly high inflation figures.
“New Zealanders will absolutely see in the coming weeks and months the cost of living is right at the heart of our work program,” Chris Hipkins said, in the first post-cabinet press conference of his tenure. “It is the number one priority that we are facing as a government and they will see tangible evidence of this,” he said.
Chris Hipkins was sworn in on Wednesday morning as prime minister by the governor general during a ceremony in the capital, Wellington. “This is the biggest privilege and responsibility of my life,” Hipkins said after formally taking office. “I’m energized and excited by the challenges ahead.”
The new prime minister will not have a soft landing in the job. On Wednesday morning, as his first official day in office began, New Zealand’s quarterly inflation figures were released, holding steady at the high rate of 7.2%. The main drivers were increases in household costs such as rents and maintenance, higher food prices, and building costs.
Hipkins said that while New Zealand’s inflation rate was “not unexpected or unusual”, sitting behind the OECD average – but “regardless of where we sit compared to the rest of the world, here in New Zealand household budgets are being stretched and we do need to do as much as we possibly can to help.” In his first meeting with cabinet, Hipkins said he had told ministers to get work under way to reprioritise their policy load to focus on economic challenges.
Quizzed by reporters on what specific policies his government would offer to assist New Zealanders struggling with rising costs, he said he was “not going to start making announcements only a couple of hours into the job”.
“We will be making haste. But I’m not going to be so tired as to make things up on the fly,” he said.
While much of his time was devoted to talking about economic pressures, Hipkins said other priorities – including climate change – would not be pushed off the government’s work program.
“The fact that we’re dealing with a cost of living crisis and… a whole range of pressures that are immediate doesn’t mean that climate change somehow moves off the agenda,” he said. “It continues to be one of the biggest intergenerational challenges that we face. So you expect to see my government continuing to make sure as we owe it to future generations that we do everything we can to tackle that challenge.”
Hipkins’ step into the prime ministry came after Jacinda Ardern said last week she no longer had “enough in the tank” after steering the country through natural disasters, its worst-ever terror attack and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Her Labor government has increasingly struggled in the polls over the past two years, hampered by soaring inflation, a looming recession and a resurgent conservative opposition.
She made her last public appearance as prime minister earlier on Wednesday, walking out of parliament as hundreds of onlookers broke into a spontaneous round of applause.
Hipkins, the architect of New Zealand’s pandemic response, is now tasked with reviving the government’s sagging popularity ahead of a general election in October.
The father-of-two is nicknamed “Chippy” and describes himself as a “regular, ordinary Kiwi” from a working-class background who loves sausage rolls and cycling to work.
“Covid-19 and the global pandemic created a health crisis. Now it’s created an economic one and that’s where my government’s focus will be,” Hipkins has said previously.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism