Chris Hipkins: New Zealand's accidental PM

Pragmatist. Hard worker. Political warrior. Party man.

Ask Chris Hipkins' colleagues what they think of the next New Zealand prime minister, and the same responses come up.

Labour through-and-through. Can make and take a joke. Diligent, talented and dependable. A details man.

Ask them if they thought he'd be prime minister, and the answer is also the same: never.

In his 15 years in parliament, Labour has elected five leaders.

Mr Hipkins was never a candidate or even mentioned as such, until Jacinda Ardern's shock resignation this week, which caused a sixth spill.

"He's never been someone touted as the leader," said Iain Lees-Galloway, a former Labour MP who entered parliament in the class of 2008 with Mr Hipkins, Mr Ardern and Grant Robertson.

"But he's always been someone who's been part of the wider leadership.

"From very early days, it was obvious that Grant, Jacinda and Chris - good friends and who'd worked as advisors in the (Helen) Clark government - they've always operated as a team.

"So it's no surprise from that, but also just from his sheer competence and the strength of his relationships across the caucus, that he would emerge as the leader."

Mr Hipkins' ascension was not written in the stars like his predecessor's. It was more a triumph of the last man standing when Mr Robertson, the deputy prime minister, chose not to run.

"I don't believe in destiny in politics," Mr Hipkins said after the party coalesced around his candidacy.

"I actually believe in hard work".

That's no surprise for a self-described "boy from the Hutt" - a reference to the Wellington's Hutt Valley, a lower socio-economic region in the capital's north.

Mr Hipkins still lives in the Hutt, where he is a regular at brunch at the local Mitre 10.

His upbringing came during the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s that pared back the welfare state.

"Many of the kids I went to school with had parents who had worked in the public services and found themselves on the economic scrap heap," he said in his maiden speech.

"They had no jobs, and there were no jobs to get ... as a society, we simply turned our backs on them."

His political awakening came at Victoria University of Wellington in the early 2000s - where he was student union president.

Mr Hipkins was arrested, strip-searched and detained overnight after protesting an increase in student fees at parliament.

"It was one of the things that got me interested in politics on a national scale," Mr Hipkins told Newstalk ZB in October.

After a few years working and travelling - including the Kiwi tradition of the London OE (overseas experience) - Mr Hipkins became a Clark government staffer.

He won preselection in Remutaka, representing the Upper Hutt, at the same election that ushered Labour from power.

During nine years in opposition, Mr Hipkins filled many jobs including party whip - herding cats during the often dark days of opposition.

Labour insiders said this period was crucial in growing his reputation.

"He's direct and confronts issues. He's always been plain spoken," one told AAP.

"He's pragmatic and solves issues. He won't get bogged down in ideology."

In office, he took the education ministry and dismantled the independent charter school regime.

Named leader in the house, he was responsible for shepherding legislation through parliament - no small task given the government's majority depended on populists NZ First and left-wingers the Greens.

His persona is one of a congenial, sausage roll-loving cyclist, but one that revels in the political fight - sometimes to a fault.

In 2017, he was rebuked by both Ms Ardern and then-Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop for digging into the dual-national status of Barnaby Joyce.

Last year, he issued a formal apology to Kiwi journalist Charlotte Bellis after misrepresenting her and revealing private information in a spat as she attempted to secure entry home.

Labour sources say he is quickly remorseful for such mistakes, and knows he must shed that skin as PM.

"He kicks himself. He says, 'What the f*** did I do that for'," an insider said.

"He is competitive and political, you might say it's a reflection of his red-haired nature.

"What he has to do now is take on National but not with that sort of stuff."

There's a lighter side to Mr Hipkins' personality too, always happy to take the mickey out of himself.

"I think it's about time we had a ginger on top," he declared on Saturday, saying he was determined not to lose his sense of humour as prime minister.

Mr Hipkins' record on conscience votes is decidedly progressive, voting for abortion decriminalisation, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

On Indigenous matters, Mr Hipkins is seen as a solid ally of the Maori caucus, often the man tasked by Maori ministers to shepherd proposals through cabinet.

On the family front, Mr Hipkins is guarded, pledging to keep his two children out of the public eye.

He married his wife Jade in 2020 - with Mr Robertson as his best man - but they separated last year, making him a rare bachelor head of government.

Kiwis know him best as COVID-19 Minister from late 2020, making him the face of the government's pandemic response as it became less popular.

His most memorable moment: a gaffe when he asked Kiwis to "spread their legs" and exercise, rather than the intended "stretch your legs".

It's ironic the man who Ms Ardern drafted to be the face of unpopular COVID-19 decisions must now attempt to rescue the party, behind in the polls, in time for the October 14 election.

Mr Lees-Galloway said Mr Hipkins' hard yakka will be his strength.

"He fronted the COVID-19 response really well and in a way that engaged the public as positively as you could. He endeared himself to people through that," he said.

"Chris will be a prime minister who is prepared to front with good news and the bad. I think people will find that an attractive quality."