New Zealand: Chris Hipkins takes over from Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday

Chris Hipkins will become New Zealand’s next prime minister after a formal vote confirming him to succeed Jacinda Ardern after her surprise resignation on Thursday.

New Zealand will also swear in its first Deputy Pacific Prime Minister with Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni, who is of Tongan and Samoan descent, to fill the role.

Ardern’s final engagements as Prime Minister will take place on Tuesday and Hipkins will be officially sworn in on Wednesday morning.

“I’m taking on this job at a challenging time for New Zealanders,” Hipkins said in his first speech after the vote, promising to focus on economic issues. “Covid-19 and the global pandemic created a health crisis and now it has created an economic crisis – and that is what my government will focus on.

“Our focus now is on the bread-and-butter issues that people care about. Some people, a lot of people are hurting right now and I want them to know that we’re on their side.”

Hipkins vowed to trim Labor’s legislative agenda to refocus on the economy and said he would start immediately “containing some programs and projects that are not essential at the moment”.

Ardern and her party’s popularity has steadily declined over the past year as New Zealand struggles with high inflation rates and rising costs of living. In outlining his vision, Hipkins pledged to bring “strong clarity, purpose and priority to helping New Zealanders through these trying economic times”.

The new Prime Minister also used his speech to pay tribute to Ardern, saying she is “one of New Zealand’s great Prime Ministers” and one of his closest friends. He targeted misogynist abuse, threats, and greed against Ardern, and urged men to take a bigger role in combating it.

“Jacinda’s leadership has been an inspiration to women and girls around the world. But it was also a reminder that we still have a long way to go when it comes to ensuring women in leadership positions receive the same respect as their male counterparts,” he said.

“The way Jacinda was treated, particularly by some sections of our society – and they are a small minority – was absolutely abhorrent.

“We as men have a responsibility to speak up,” he said. “We often leave it up to women to say, ‘That’s not okay, and I don’t think that’s okay,’ and a lot of women don’t feel comfortable saying that. So I think we have a responsibility as men to name it when we see it.”

Hipkins was due to take over as prime minister since Saturday morning, when he was the only candidate nominated by caucus members to take Ardern’s place. High-ranking MPs had pushed for a consensus candidate, hoping for a quick, decisive transition without power struggles. Sunday’s vote concluded the Hipkins selection process, and loud cheers and chanting could be heard from the meeting room as members met throughout the morning.

Sepuloni, who Hipkins has announced as his deputy, will become New Zealand’s first Deputy Pacific Prime Minister. Regarded as a reliable government official, the Minister for Social Development, Arts, Culture and Heritage maintained a close relationship with Hipkins, working with him as a whip in Parliament and working closely on education and juvenile delinquency programmes.

Also based in Auckland, she represents almost a third of New Zealand’s total city population, a trait seen as crucial for the leadership teams of New Zealand’s major parties.

“It is very difficult to imagine that a working-class girl from Waitara who has become a Westie could become that person’s Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand,” Sepuloni said.

“I want to recognize the importance of this to our Pacific community – I am a proud Samoan, Tongan and New Zealander European and represent generations of mixed heritage New Zealanders.”

Sepuloni entered Parliament in 2008 and became New Zealand’s first MP of Tongan descent.