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On the campaign trail, New Zealand leader Chris Hipkins faces an uphill battle wooing voters


NEW PLYMOUTH, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was on the campaign trail Monday visiting an art gallery when his guide asked him what he pictured when he looked up at a towering wooden sculpture.

“I was actually just contemplating that,” Hipkins replied. “And I don't really have a readout of it.”

His response seemed to reinforce a criticism of Hipkins — that it's hard to know what he's passionate about, what his vision is in politics.

But it perhaps also spoke to the unpretentious, Everyman image that Hipkins likes to project. He appeared more at ease earlier in the day when he'd been talking about home insulation with tradespeople and handing out sausages at a barbecue event to promote renewable energy.

With less than three weeks until New Zealand's Oct. 14 general election, the campaign stop in New Plymouth was another chance for Hipkins to woo voters. Opinion polls put his Labour Party significantly behind the more conservative National Party, led by former businessman Christopher Luxon, whose promise of tax cuts to help the nation's “squeezed middle” seems to be resonating with voters.

Both men have been holding low-key campaign events. Hipkins — known as “Chippy” for his upbeat personality — began Monday by boarding a small 50-seat plane to get to New Plymouth. During the day, he was asked to take a handful of selfies and given a few encouraging words of support.

It's a far cry from the two campaigns of his predecessor, Jacinda Ardern, who was mobbed like a rock star wherever she went.

After five years as prime minister and with her popularity waning, Ardern unexpectedly stepped down in January, leaving Hipkins, a trusted lieutenant, to take over. He previously served as education minister, led the response to the coronavirus pandemic, and become the Labour Party's unofficial troubleshooter.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Hipkins, 45, said Ardern had been an “incredible” leader but that he had a different style and different priorities.

Within days of taking the reins, Hipkins found himself dealing with a crisis after New Zealand was hit first by floods and then a cyclone, killing 15 people and causing billions of dollars in damage.

Hipkins said it was a huge challenge.

“But that is the nature of government,” he said. “You have to be prepared for the unexpected. Anything can happen, and you have to be able to adapt to that.”

Hipkins quickly axed some of Ardern's more contentious policies as he sought to refocus on “bread and butter” issues, primarily the spiraling cost of living. Asked what single policy he most wanted to implement as leader, Hipkins said it was hard to choose.

“I’ve always struggled to narrow this down to just one thing because people’s lives don’t rely on just one thing,” he said, adding he was proud of the work he'd done to provide free school lunches, promote apprenticeships and tackle climate change.

“This is the preeminent challenge facing humanity across the globe right now. That and inequality,” Hipkins said. “And those two things are linked.”

Environmental advocates have criticized New Zealand for moving too slowly on climate change, while many farmers have been upset at moves to tax agricultural emissions, including cow burps.

New Zealand has long relied on China to buy much of its key dairy exports, but China's growing geopolitical assertiveness and its weakening economy have many questioning that strategy.

Hipkins had pressed for more trade with India. Asked if his eagerness had dimmed since Canada accused India of possible involvement in the killing of a Sikh Canadian, a claim India has called absurd, Hipkins said India was just a single country.

“India is a big market, so therefore it should be part of our international export strategy,” Hipkins said. “But I don’t think we should rush from having one major overseas market to having two major overseas markets. We’ve got to look at market diversification.”

Hipkins said there has been an increase in the number of campaign events disrupted by people from fringe groups, prompting increased security during this election season.

“It’s frustrating because it’s a small minority who are interfering in the right of every other New Zealander to participate in a democratic process,” Hipkins said.

By contrast, the first debate between Hipkins and Luxon last week on Television New Zealand was seen by many as polite and restrained. Indeed, some observers criticized Hipkins for being too deferential to Luxon and allowing him to get across his talking points largely unchallenged.

Asked if he planned to take a more aggressive stance in their second debate, Hipkins hinted he would.

“Well, we'll see,” he said, giving a wink.

He said his job over the coming weeks was “to get out there and remind New Zealanders what our government stands for.”

He has his work cut out for him.