Deputy PM Carmel Sepuloni's appointment symbolic for Pacific community

Leaders in the Pacific community believe the appointment of the country's first deputy prime minister of Pacific descent will bring positive change.

Incoming Prime Minister Chris Hipkins - who is taking over the reins from Jacinda Ardern just nine months away from the general elections - chose Carmel Sepuloni as his deputy yesterday.

She also made history 15 years ago when she became New Zealand's first Tongan MP.

Reverend Setaita Veikune of the Methodist Church of NZ told Morning Report the Kelston MP's would serve as an inspiration for the younger generation, particularly girls.

"This is a visible example of what we can achieve and proof that for our people, the sky really is the limit," she said.

"Carmel being a Tongan, Samoan woman as deputy prime minister, is a profound contribution in my opinion to eliminating negative stereotypes and reducing unconscious bias against us.

"This alone does more for our communities than many realise, such as reducing advancement barriers, which are biased against us in different spaces."

Pacific community leader Sir Collin Tukuitonga told Morning Report this was a historic moment not just for their community, but the whole country.

"I think it's a statement of ourselves as a nation that perhaps we're maturing and being serious about inclusivity."

Sepuloni's experiences and networks in Pasifika and Māoridom communities would bring benefits as she supports Hipkins' leadership, he said.

Veikune hoped Sepuloni - who currently holds portfolios for social development, ACC, and arts, culture and heritage - would work to bring the Pasifika community forward with her.

"I find her very strong in her quiet and humble way... She brings strength, courage, and determination, to do what is required, and I believe her humility is something that will take us forward greatly."

Deputy PM Carmel Sepuloni's appointment symbolic for Pacific community
Photo credit: Getty Images


In an interview with E-Tangata in 2017, Sepuloni said she had thought of entering politics from a young age, with the ambition of helping create a fairer society.

"Interestingly, growing up - and friends still remind me of this - I used to say that this is what I would do. That I would be a politician. And they found it so funny at the time," she said.

"We can see the unfairness unfolding around us, whether it be health statistics or educational outcomes. Pay inequality. All of those things that we see in our own lives, our families' lives, and our communities. So, I think it's really difficult not to feel political in some way."

As Minister of Social Development for the past five years, Sepuloni has been steadily reforming the system via measures including raising benefit levels, adopting a less punitive approach to sanctions and overseeing a review of the Working for Families welfare scheme.

Writing in the Herald at the time of ram raids last August, Sepuloni reflected on her time as an at-risk youth educator with tertiary students.

"I've seen what works and what doesn't, and punitive approaches to young people - or people in general, really - already experiencing complex challenges don't. I liken it to pushing someone over who is wanting and trying to get up, while yelling at them to get up."

But in 2021, a report from Child Poverty Action Group found almost three years on from the Welfare Expert Advisory Group's 42 recommendations for overhauling the system, none had been fully implemented.