Chris Hipkins was confirmed on Sunday as New Zealand’s next prime minister and chose Carmel Sepuloni as his deputy, marking the first time a person with Pacific Island heritage has ascended to that post.
Hipkins won unanimous backing from his Labor Party lawmakers after being the only candidate to enter the race to replace Jacinda Ardern, who shocked the nation on Thursday by announcing she was stepping down after more than five years as leader.
Hipkins will be officially sworn in to his new role on Wednesday. He has less than nine months before he faces a tough general election, with opinion polls indicating his party trails the conservative opposition.
The lack of other candidates for leader indicated that the party’s lawmakers rallied behind Hipkins to avoid a protracted race and any hint of disunity following Ardern’s departure.
In defining his priorities, Hipkins said he knew that many families were struggling due to the “inflation pandemic” and that the economy would be central to his administration’s thinking.
When asked if he would take the same transformational approach to government that Ardern had promised after winning the top job, Hipkins indicated he wanted to go back to basics.
“We will provide a very solid government that is focused on the basic issues that matter to New Zealanders and that are relevant to the times we are in now,” Hipkins said. “2017 was five and one-half years ago, and a lot has happened since then.”
Like Hipkins, Sepuloni first became a lawmaker 15 years ago and more recently took over social development and employment as a top government minister.
She said it was “very hard 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 to our Pacific community,” said Sepuloni. “I am proudly Samoan, Tongan and European New Zealander and represent generations of New Zealanders of mixed heritage.”
Sepuloni said he had already received many humiliating messages about yet another glass ceiling being broken.
Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon told reporters he congratulated Hipkins via text message. But Luxon said Hipkins and Sepuloni were part of a government that “failed spectacularly” to get things done and that, after the change in leadership, would be more of the same.