Chris Hipkins was confirmed Sunday as New Zealand’s next prime minister and he chose Carmel Sepuloni as his deputy, marking the first time a person with Pacific Island heritage has risen to that rank.
The 44-year-old education and police minister got the unanimous support of lawmakers from his Labour Party after he was the only candidate to enter the contest to replace Jacinda Ardern, who shocked the nation Thursday when she announced she was resigning after more than five years as leader.
Hipkins will be officially sworn into his new role on Wednesday. He will have less than nine months before contesting a tough general election, with opinion polls indicating his party is trailing its conservative opposition.
The lack of other candidates for leader indicated that party lawmakers had rallied behind Hipkins to avoid a drawn-out contest and any sign of disunity following Ardern’s departure.
In setting out his priorities, Hipkins said he knew many families were struggling due to the “pandemic of inflation” and that the economy would be central to his government’s thinking.
When asked if he would take on the same transformational approach to government that Ardern had promised after first winning the top job, Hipkins indicated he wanted to get back to basics.
“We will deliver a very solid government that is focused on the bread-and-butter issues that matter to New Zealanders, and that are relevant to the times that we are in now,” Hipkins said. “2017 was five-and-a-half years ago, and quite a lot has happened since then.”
Hipkins criticized the treatment endured by Ardern during her term and vowed to shield his own family from such attention
Politicians and other public figures have also lined up to criticize the “vitriol” Ardern was subjected to as prime minister, notably on social media, although she did not mention it herself when she resigned.
“The way Jacinda has been treated, particularly by some segments of our society — and they are a small minority — has been utterly abhorrent,” Hipkins said.
“It does not represent who we are as a country,” he added.
The future prime minister, best known for leading a national crackdown on COVID-19 for nearly two years, said he understood that putting himself forward as a leader meant he was “public property.”
“But my family aren’t,” he told reporters.
Hipkins said he wanted his six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter to grow up with a “typical Kiwi kid life,” adding that his amicable separation from his wife was his own business.
“I have seen the enormous scrutiny and pressure placed on Jacinda and her family and so my response will be to keep my family completely out of the spotlight,” he said.
Like Hipkins, Sepuloni first became a lawmaker 15 years ago and has most recently taken on the social development and employment portfolios as one of the government’s top ministers.
She said it was “very hard to fathom that a working-class girl” from a small New Zealand town could end up as deputy prime minister.
“I want to acknowledge the significance of this for our Pacific community,” Sepuloni said. “I am proudly Samoan, Tongan, and New Zealand European, and represent generations of New Zealanders with mixed heritage.”
Sepuloni said she’d already been receiving lots of humbling messages about another glass ceiling being smashed.
About eight percent of New Zealand’s 5.1 million population identifies as Pasifika — a New Zealander of Pacific Island descent.
Grant Robertson, deputy prime minister under Ardern, is expected to remain as finance minister.
Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon told reporters he’d congratulated Hipkins by text. But Luxon said Hipkins and Sepuloni had been part of a government that had “failed spectacularly” to get things done and that after the leadership change, it would be more of the same.