19 Jan 2023

Ardern resigns: Who are the frontrunners for Labour leadership?

5:00 pm on 19 January 2023
Collage of Megan Woods, Chris Hipkins, Michael Wood, and Kiri Allen

Photo: RNZ

With Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing her February resignation this afternoon, Labour MPs face a choice over who could replace her as leader.

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson has ruled himself out, saying his position had not changed from when he ruled himself out the last time he contested the leadership in 2014, losing to Andrew Little. He told RNZ his mind would not be changed.

Deputy Labour Leader Kelvin Davis also ruled himself out, saying he would instead be supporting whoever was selected by the caucus.

That leaves Chris Hipkins, Megan Woods, Michael Wood and Kiri Allan as likely frontrunners.

Hipkins has been a high-profile minister for the entirety of Labour's government, taking on big portfolios including Education, Health, Covid-19 Response and Police.

He has largely avoided major scandal - with the notable exception of his handling of the Charlotte Bellis MIQ case - and his confidence in the face of media scrutiny has usually served him well.

Questioned by reporters this afternoon, he would not rule out a tilt at the top job, saying it was too early for that kind of speculation.

"I'm not going to get into a discussion of that at the moment ... I think people need just a little bit of time," he said.

"I think it's really important that we have time to digest it and make a good, sound decision."

He said he had not been shoulder-tapped by Ardern.

"I think we will have a good, constructive discussion, we will select a new leader that the party will then unite behind. Leadership contests don't have to be like the Hunger Games as the National Party seem to have perfected the art of, it is actually possible to do it differently and that's what we'll be striving to do."

Woods is also seen as competent under pressure with a good grasp of detail in her hefty portfolios including Energy and Housing, which she took over after the KiwiBuild programme began falling short of its ambitious targets.

She said today was about the "enormous contribution" Ardern had made.

"I've stood beside her on so many occasions where I think we've witnessed leadership that New Zealand can be immensely proud to have had her as leader.

She would not add to speculation about likely leaders, but did not appear to be on the same page as Davis.

"Apart from the announcement that's been made about Grant's intentions, this is a discussion for caucus and no one will be ruling in or out."

Woods is also chairing the election campaign this year and said while Ardern was incredibly important to Labour as an incredibly effective communicator with intellectual grunt, "we have a campaign that is raring to go that is about what we have managed to achieve in the last five years, but more importantly what we want to achieve in the next three.

"That campaign is based on a team that Jacinda built and that is the critical piece, and Jacinda would be the first person to say that herself ... our campaign was always going to be about what the Labour government had managed to achieve."

Transport, Immigration and Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood has been something of a rising star in the party.

He said he was "very proud" to have served under Ardern, but would not speak about leadership prospects.

"One of the finest prime ministers we've ever had ... today's about recognising her extraordinary achievements over a period of momentous years for New Zealand.

"That's all I'll be saying today. There'll be an internal caucus process and that's all I'll be saying today."

Allan is a younger and more recent addition to Labour's ministerial ranks, but has been spoken of alongside former Whip Kieran McAnulty as a possible future leader.

McAnulty had however ruled himself out of the running this afternoon, saying there were no candidates yet but he "most certainly will not" be one of them.

Allan said the mood from the caucus on finding out about Ardern's decision was "absolute respect for Jacinda and the job that she's done, support for the decision that she's made and unity amongst all of us".

"We love her and we respect the job that she's done not just for the Labour Party but the country, so very genuinely just tautoko the role that she's played as prime minister."

She would not make any kind of ruling over possible leaders.

"We believe it's really important to stick to process here, so I think it's really important that people don't rule themselves in or out... I'm not going to talk about the process, I'll leave that for someone else."

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