New Zealand's new leader Hipkins cuts many contentious plans

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand's new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins on Wednesday said he was axing or delaying many of his government's more contentious policy plans as he looked to refocus on priorities like the rising cost of living.

Hipkins, who was sworn in two weeks ago after the shock resignation of Jacinda Ardern, said his government had been trying to do too much, too fast.

Among the plans he has dropped or delayed is legislation that would have outlawed hate speech against religious groups in the wake of the deadly 2019 mosque shootings, a plan to merge the nation's public television and radio broadcasters, a new insurance scheme to help laid-off workers, and a mandate for fuel suppliers to increase their use of biofuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“These are the first and the most significant set of decisions that we are taking to refocus the government's agenda,” Hipkins said. “They'll allow us to shift our focus, our time, our energy and our resources to the most pressing issues that are facing New Zealanders at the moment. They won't be the last policy changes we'll be making.”

Among criticisms of the plans were that the hate speech bill would have impinged on free speech, the broadcasting merger was unnecessary, the insurance scheme would have been expensive for employers and workers, and the fuel mandate would have raised the cost of gas.

Hipkins said the government was continuing to take a hard look at other contentious plans, which include the government taking more control of water infrastructure, building light rail connections in Auckland, and taxing the greenhouse gas emissions of farm animals.

Hipkins also announced a 7% increase in the minimum wage, to 22.70 New Zealand dollars ($14.40) per hour.

Hipkins faces a general election in just over eight months. After Ardern won the last election in a landslide, her popularity faded and opinion polls put her Labour Party behind its main conservative rival, the National Party. Polls indicate the Labour Party has gotten an initial boost in support since Hipkins took the reins.

Before she resigned, Ardern had said she planned this year to refocus some of the government's priorities.

But the sweeping nature of the reset by Hipkins took some observers by surprise. Hipkins said the changes could save hundreds of millions of dollars. He said many of the plans remained good ideas but the time wasn't right to implement them.

Taxpayer groups applauded the measures, while environmentalists said the country was in danger of stepping away from its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon said the government was merely putting many of its plans on hold for another day.

“They’re still obsessed with ideological pet projects, they still have no plan to reduce the cost of living, and they are still addicted to wasteful spending,” Luxon said.