To lead Labour to victory again, Chris Hipkins would have to repeat the feat of one of New Zealand’s greatest leaders Peter Fraser.
Analysis: History in New Zealand has not been kind to leaders who have taken over as Prime Minister during a Parliamentary term.
Eight times since 1936 a new person has taken on the job of party leader and Prime Minister during a parliamentary term, usually with winning the next election in mind, but so far, it has worked only once and has failed seven times.
The one occasion when a new leader was able to lead their party to victory after taking over during a Parliamentary term was when Peter Fraser succeeded Michael Joseph Savage in 1940. He led Labour to victories at the 1943 and 1946 elections.
Will Chris Hipkins, who inherited the Prime Ministership after Jacinda Ardern stepped down in January, be an exception? Or will he confirm the rule?
Let’s look back over New Zealand’s political history. Sometimes illness or death has forced a party in government to change its leader.
Fraser replaced Savage in 1940 and was successful at the next election. By early 1957 Prime Minister Sydney Holland was seriously ill. He stood down and Keith Holyoake took over and led National into the election that year. He lost.
Fun fact: in 1960 Holyoake led National to victory, becoming only the second person in New Zealand to lose the job of Prime Minister and then to win it back.(Sir Joseph Ward is the other.)
In August 1974 Prime Minister Norman Kirk died suddenly and was succeeded by Bill Rowling who led Labour to a landslide defeat in 1975.
Sometimes the change in Prime Minister has come from an internal coup. Mike Moore defeated Geoffrey Palmer as party leader to become PM in 1990. Fifty nine days later he lost the 1990 election.
Jenny Shipley successfully led a coup against National Prime Minister Jim Bolger in December 1997 and then lost the 1999 election.
Three time Prime Ministers have stood voluntarily. David Lange in August 1989 was succeeded by Geoffery Palmer. John Key in December 2016 was succeeded by Bill English. Both times the governing party lost the next election.
In January 2023 Chris Hipkins was elected to replace Jacinda Ardern.
Whatever the circumstances, the person taking on the mantle of the Prime Minister during a Parliamentary term in New Zealand has lost the next general election with one except 83 years ago.
The record in overseas democracies is a bit more encouraging.
In the UK, Winston Churchill passed the baton of leadership to Antony Eden in 1955 who won a general election a month later but resigned after the Suez crisis in 1956. The next leader of the Conservative Party was Harold Macmillan who won the 1959 election.
He was succeeded in 1963 by Sir Alec Douglas-Home who lost in the 1964 election to Harold Wilson.
Jim Callaghan succeeded Wilson as PM in 1976 and then lost the 1979 election. Margaret Thatcher was forced out of office in 1990 and her successor John Major unexpectedly won the 1992 election.
However, Gordon Brown lost badly in the 2010 election after he succeeded Tony Blair as PM in 2007. When David Cameron stepped down as PM in 2016, his successor Teresa May surprisingly called a snap election in 2017 which turned a majority Conservative government into a minority one.
When May stepped down in 2019, Boris Johnson was elected as leader and hence Prime Minister. He won a general election in December 2019 decisively.
There have been two Prime Ministers in the UK since then: Liz Truss who lasted just 50 days, and now Rishi Sunak who has yet to face an election.
In late 1991 in Australia PM Bob Hawke was challenged for the leadership of the Labour Party. Paul Keating was elected and became PM, and to just about everyone’s surprise, won the 1993 election.
In 2010 Kevin Rudd resigned as PM in favour of Julia Gillard and she won re-election as a minority government later that year. In June 2013 the Labour caucus threw her out and re-elected Rudd as leader. He lost the 2013 election.
While in opposition, Tony Abbott successfully challenged Malcolm Turnbull as leader of the Liberal Party and went on to win the 2013 election thus becoming Prime Minister.
However, in September 2015, Turnbull had his revenge, deposing Abbott and becoming Prime Minister himself. He won the 2016 election. In August 2018 Turnbull was moved on as leader in favour of Scott Morrison, who won the 2019 election.
Overseas changing leaders during a parliamentary term, at least in the UK and Australia is a partially successful strategy. In New Zealand since 1936 it has failed almost every time it’s been tried. Will 2023 be different? Watch this space.