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

Chris Hipkins will be New Zealand’s next prime minister following a formal vote that endorsed him as Jacinda Ardern’s successor after her shock resignation on Thursday.

New Zealand will also swear in its first ever Pasifika deputy prime minister, with social development minister Carmel Sepuloni, who is of Tongan descent, to take the role.

Ardern’s last engagements as prime minister will be on Tuesday, and Hipkins will be officially sworn in on Wednesday morning.

“I take on this job at a challenging time for New Zealanders,” Hipkins said in his first speech after the vote, promising a laser focus on economic issues. “Covid-19 and the global pandemic created a health crisis, and now it’s created an economic one – and that’s where my government’s focus will be.

“Our focus will be on the right now, on the bread and butter issues that people care about. Some people, many people are hurting at the moment, and I want them to know that we are on their side.”

Hipkins promised to strip back Labour’s legislative agenda to refocus on the economy, saying he would immediately begin “reining in some programmes and projects that aren’t essential right now”.

Ardern and her party’s popularity have dropped steadily over the past year, as New Zealand has grappled with high inflation rates and rising cost of living. In outlining his vision, Hipkins promised to bring “strong clarity, sense of purpose and priority to helping New Zealanders through these tough economic times”.

The incoming prime minster also used his speech to pay tribute to Ardern, saying she was “one of New Zealand’s great prime ministers” and one of his closest friends. He took aim at misogynist abuse, threats and vitriol aimed at Ardern, and called on men to take a greater role in countering it.

“Jacinda’s leadership has been an inspiration to women and girls everywhere. But it’s also been a reminder that we’ve got a way to go when it comes to ensuring that women in leadership receive the same respect as their male counterparts,” he said.

“The way Jacinda has been treated, particularly by some segments of our society – and they are a small minority – has been utterly abhorrent.

“We as men have a responsibility to speak up about that,” he said. “We often leave it to women to say ‘this isn’t OK, and I don’t feel OK about that,’ and many women don’t feel comfortable talking in that way. So I think we as men have a responsibility to call it out when we see it.”

Hipkins had been set to take the prime ministership since Saturday morning when he was the sole candidate nominated by caucus members to take Ardern’s place. Senior MPs had pushed for a consensus nominee, hoping for a swift, decisive transition without infighting. Sunday’s vote finalised the process of Hipkins’ selection, and loud cheering and singing were heard from the caucus room as members met through the morning.

Sepuloni, whom Hipkins has announced as his deputy, will be New Zealand’s first Pasifika deputy prime minister. The minister for social development, arts, culture and heritage is considered a reliable performer in government, and has had a close relationship with Hipkins, working alongside him as a whip in parliament, and collaborating closely on programmes for education and youth crime.

She is also Auckland-based, bringing representation of a city home to almost a third of New Zealand’s total population, an attribute that is considered crucial to the leadership teams of New Zealand’s major parties.

“It is very hard to fathom that a working-class girl from Waitara who turned westie, that person can become the deputy prime minister of New Zealand,” Sepuloni said.

“I want to acknowledge the significance of this for our Pacific community – I am proudly Samoan, Tongan and New Zealand European and represent generations of New Zealanders with mixed heritage.”

Sepuloni entered parliament in 2008, becoming New Zealand’s first MP of Tongan descent.

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