Carmel Sepuloni admits her father, who arrived from Samoa in 1964 unable to speak English, had difficulty taking in the news that his daughter was shortly to become New Zealand’s first Pasifika deputy prime minister.
“To think that he could come here to work on the railways and the freezing works [abattoir] and marry a sheep farmer’s daughter and have a daughter who would become the deputy prime minister of New Zealand is very difficult to comprehend,” Sepuloni said. “But as you can imagine, [he’s] very proud.”
Sepuloni has been the country’s social development minister and is of Samoan, Tongan and Pākehā (European) descent. She says she is humbled to be “smashing glass ceilings” and is now tasked with winning back voters for an election campaign that, if successful, would represent the first time New Zealand had voted a Pasifika candidate into one of its top leadership roles.
Speaking to reporters as her selection was announced on Sunday, Sepuloni said the moment had “huge significance to our community in terms of the representation”.
“I’ve received so many humbling messages about another glass ceiling being smashed,” she said. “For our Pacific community and for young girls, for women, we’re continuing to role-model as a country that leadership positions for women are absolutely possible.”
Sepuloni’s journey to one of the most powerful positions in the country started in Waitara, a tiny farming town on New Zealand’s west coast with a population of about 6,000. Her father worked at the local abattoir, and her mother in factories or as a kiwifruit picker and packer. Since 1996 she has lived in West Auckland, an ethnically diverse region with relatively high rates of poverty and income inequality, where she worked teaching young people to read and write, and later in Pacific health organisations.
Aotearoa’s new prime minister, Chris Hipkins, and his deputy have situated themselves proudly within two of the country’s longstanding working class and low-income communities, introducing themselves as a “boy from the Hutt” – referring to the Hutt Valley, a historically blue-collar area outside Wellington city – and a “working-class girl” respectively.
“It’s very hard to fathom that a working-class girl from Waitara … can become the deputy prime minister of New Zealand,” Sepuloni said, in her first appearance after being selected for the role on Sunday.
“It’s a historic occasion,” said Dr Collin Tukuitonga, an advocate for Pacific health and wellbeing, and associate dean at Auckland University. He called it a moment of New Zealand “maturing as a nation, becoming more accepting of diversity, accepting we are a Pacific nation”.
Seeing her reach the highest levels of government was “a significant milestone for Carmel and her family, given her background – it’s actually very significant for the Pacific communities in New Zealand,” he said. “I think it’s a really important signal to young girls and women that they can achieve their goals, regardless of the setbacks.”
Sepuloni – who was also New Zealand’s first MP of Tongan descent when she was first elected in 2008 – has spent the past five years as minister for social development. Often a fraught portfolio for Labour governments due to the weight of expectations, Sepuloni’s tenure has been without major scandal. She has overseen a series of increases in welfare payments, as well as the rollout of wage subsidies for businesses during Covid-19 lockdowns.
Well liked among the Labour caucus, Sepuloni is not a flashy politician. Asked to describe the minister, colleagues and contemporaries reach for words such as steady, humble, hard-working.
“She’s a calm, easy-going politician,” said Neale Jones, who worked alongside Sepuloni when he was chief of staff for Jacinda Ardern. “Never heard her raise her voice.”
Her upbringing in rural New Zealand may help in speaking to farming communities, which have had increasingly fractious relations with the Labour government. In her maiden speech to parliament, she recalled childhood arguments with her grandparents, whom she describes as “devoted Tories” who clashed with her staunchly Labour-voting father.
“I recall, one time, interrupting … to say: ‘But grandad, the Labour party looks after the poor people.’ His response to that was: ‘Just eat your ruddy Weet-Bix.’”
Tukuitonga, who has worked with Sepuloni as an advocate on Pacific health and housing inequalities, said she was “a calm, steady influence: not too flashy, but solid and competent”.
Alongside Hipkins, who is known for a straight-talking style and fondness for sausage rolls, the pair represent a swerve away from some of the soaring rhetoric and star power Ardern brought to the party’s leadership.
“Sepuloni and Hipkins won’t try to emulate Jacinda’s star power,” said Jones. “Ardern was a once-in-a-generation politician, and it would be silly to try.”
Ultimately, Labour will be hoping that this works in their favour, to resonate with New Zealanders – particularly lower and middle income voters – feeling the pinch of rising rent and mortgage payments, and food prices up by 11.3%.
“The current moment is about families feeling economic pain,” Jones said. “I think a leadership who aren’t flashy, who get on with the job, are seen as competent and in-touch is actually probably what people are after. “
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