"Energized and excited": Chris Hipkins becomes 41st Prime Minister of New Zealand

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Hipkins (front, center) being sworn-in on January 25, 2023.
Image: Office of the Governor-General of New Zealand.

On January 25, Chris Hipkins succeeded Jacinda Ardern as prime minister of New Zealand after the latter's 'shock' resignation on January 19.

At the swearing-in ceremony in Wellington, Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro, King Charles III's representative, appointed Hipkins prime minister and Carmel Sepuloni the first Pasifika New Zealander deputy prime minister.

Hipkins, 44, was elected to replace Ardern as leader of the Labour Party unopposed on January 22. He is expected to lead the party into the October elections amidst economic challenges and two years of declining Labour popularity against a stronger conservative opposition.

In his first speech as prime minister, Hipkins, who under Ardern led New Zealand's response to COVID-19, said: "This is the biggest privilege and responsibility of my life [...] I’m energized and excited by the challenges that lie ahead."

Hipkins said the cost of living was an "absolute priority" for the new ministry but ruled out announcing specifics "only a couple of hours into the job". Quarterly consumer spending figures published that morning showed New Zealand's inflation rate remained high at 7.2%, led by increases in housing and food costs.

"New Zealanders will absolutely see in the coming weeks and months the cost of living is right at the heart of our work program [...] It is the number one priority that we are facing as a government and they will see tangible evidence of this", he told reporters, but said "I’m not going to be so hasty as to make things up on the fly".

Sepuloni expressed her gratitude for the position and saluted Hipkins' victory. On Sunday, Sepuloni, of Samoan, Tongan, and New Zealand European descent, said she "want[s] to acknowledge the significance of this for our Pacific community".

On Sunday, Hipkins pledged to fight what he described as a "pandemic of inflation": "COVID-19 and the global pandemic created a health crisis. Now it’s created an economic one and that’s where my government’s focus will be". But he said focusing on the economy won't detract from other priorities, including climate change, which remains "one of the biggest intergenerational challenges that we face."

Christopher Luxon, the Leader of the Opposition, said he texted Hipkins and Sepuloni his congratulations, but declared the Ardern government "failed spectacularly", and Hipkins promised only 'more of the same'.

Despite previous cabinet positions as Minister of Education and Minister of Police, Hipkins became known as the 'architect' behind New Zealand's COVID-19 policy. Nevertheless, according to the Associated Press, he and other party members were obscure compared to Ardern, a "global icon for the left".

Ardern said she resigned after serving almost fifteen years as a member of parliament because she didn't "have it in the tank [to continue]." She is expected to remain an MP before resigning in April, to prevent a by-election before the October vote.

Ardern was elected prime minister in a coalition government in 2017 and won a landslide re-election three years later. She has governed during the nation's deadliest terrorist attack, natural disasters, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In her last event as prime minister on Tuesday, Ardern said people were "the joy of the job". On Wednesday morning, staffers and supporters gathered to say goodbye and hug her as she walked out of the Parliament building.

William and Catherine, the Prince and Princess of Wales, tweeted Ardern and her family their gratitude "for your friendship, leadership and support over the years, not least at the time of my grandmother’s death."