Chris Hipkins was confirmed as New Zealand’s next prime minister on Sunday and he elected Carmel Sepuloni as his deputy, marking the first time a person of Pacific Island heritage has risen to the rank.
Hipkins received unanimous support from lawmakers from his Labor Party after he was the only candidate entered in the contest to replace Jacinda Ardern, who shocked the nation on Thursday when she announced she was retiring after more than five years would step down as chairman.
Hipkins will be officially sworn in to his new role on Wednesday. He will have less than nine months before contesting a tough general election, with opinion polls showing his party is lagging behind its conservative opposition.
The lack of other contenders for the leadership suggested that party lawmakers had rallied behind Hipkins to avoid a protracted contest and any sign of disunity after Ardern’s departure.
In setting out his priorities, Hipkins said he knew many families were struggling because of the “inflationary pandemic” and that the economy would be at the center of his government’s thinking.
When asked if he would take the same transformative approach to government that Ardern promised after winning the top job for the first time, Hipkins said he wants to get back to basics.
“We will form a very solid government that is focused on the bread-and-butter issues that are important to New Zealanders and that are relevant to the times that we are in,” Hipkins said. “2017 was five years old – half a year ago, and a lot has happened since then.”
Like Hipkins, Sepuloni first became a legislator 15 years ago, most recently as one of the government’s chief ministers, taking over the portfolios of social development and employment.
She said it was “very difficult to imagine that a working-class girl” from a small town in New Zealand could end up as Deputy Prime Minister.
“I want to recognize the importance of this fact to our Pacific community,” Sepuloni said. “I am a proud Samoan, Tongan and New Zealander European, representing generations of mixed heritage New Zealanders.”
Sepuloni said she has already received many humiliating messages about another glass ceiling being smashed.
Opposition leader Christopher Luxon told reporters he texted Hipkins to congratulate him. But Luxon said Hipkins and Sepuloni were part of a government that had “failed spectacularly” to get things done and that it would be more of the same after the leadership change.