Incoming Prime Minister Bill English has promised a moderate government but there were a few surprises in his first media appearance, including poetry, a u-turn on gay marriage and a nod to the trade unions.

English and Paula Bennett were elected as leader and deputy leader by the National Party caucus this morning and were appointed as Prime Minister and Deputy PM this afternoon by the Governor-General.

In a short statement, English said it was a privilege to be appointed to the country's top job.

Addressing Dame Patsy Reddy, he promised to "take seriously the role you have conferred on us".

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LISTEN: New PM Bill English speaks to Larry Williams

English said he would announce his new ministerial line up before Christmas.

Bill English sought to distinguish an English-led government from that led by John Key. Photo / Mark Micthell
Bill English sought to distinguish an English-led government from that led by John Key. Photo / Mark Micthell

English sought to distinguish an English-led government from that led by John Key, saying he was taking over the reins in very different circumstances to those Key had led under.

The domestic and global economy were less fragile and English was hopeful he would not have to contend with the string of natural disasters that had marked Key's eight years.

He indicated infrastructure would be a priority, saying the Government would continue to invest in roading, public transport, schools and housing that were needed to support a strong economy and growing population.

It would also deliver "smarter" ways to help the most vulnerable, such as the investment approach to the delivery of social services. English has been a driving force of that and said he expected to retain some overview.

"This will be a Government supporting economic growth and ensuring the benefits of growth are widely shared."

English even gave a nod to the trade union movement, saying that by supporting business, iwi, unions, churches and volunteers the Government could do a better job of changing lives.

However, English refused to commit to the Key's 2008 promise not to change the pension age, saying it would be among a stocktake of National's policies would take place before the 2017 election.

"I'm not making the same pledge as the previous Prime Minister did. That was a product of its time where there was a need to establish trust and I think it was a sound decision then. The election was followed by a recession which could have caused real insecurity for older people.

I think now we have built credibility as a Government that we will support those who are dependent on Government income. We won't put them in a worse position, we will work to get them in a better position."

Setting out his leadership philosophy, English quoted a line from Selina Tusitala Marsh's poetry which he heard at a Women's Leadership Conference. "She said, 'lead and dig up the diamonds around you."

He expanded on that later, saying he was referring to the diamonds in New Zealand society.

"I've never been in a community where there isn't someone with the vision and energy to change how it works, so I suppose someone else said something that I meant, and that's why I quoted it."

Prime Minister Bill English and Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett after their caucus meeting at Parliament, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Bill English and Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett after their caucus meeting at Parliament, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"The Government isn't the answer to everything, most of our answers are in our own families and communities. Sometimes Government gets in the way of that. This is a Government that will be focussed on understanding, at a very individual level, what is going to work with people and then supporting them to achieve it."

English said decisions on an election date would not be made until early next year. However, he ruled out going early to the polls simply because David Shearer's departure would cause a by-election.

"I think one of the worse reasons for having an election in New Zealand is the fact Labour are losing their moderate members, and their competent members. So no, we won't be driven by their internal problems. We are driven by what works for New Zealand, not what works for the Labour Party."

On the prospect of forming a government with NZ First leader Winston Peters, English said he had worked with Peters in the National Government in the 1990s - a relationship he characterised as "challenging at times."

"The business of worrying about NZ First I think will arise after the election."

He said his preference was to have the current support partners - an arrangement he said had worked well.

The press conference also delivered some of English's trademark dry humour.

Asked if he would give Key a knighthood, English grinned and joked "well, it's not as if he's never asked."

He said he was a supporter of the monarchy, but joked "it would be hard to match the enthusiasm of the previous Prime Minister."

Despite his push to change the flag, Key was a fan of the Queen and the monarchy and his royal encounters included a rare invite for a weekend at Balmoral Castle.

While he described himself as an 'active Catholic' who was opposed to abortion and euthanasia, he said he would probably vote differently on the gay marriage bill now.

"But I don't intend to use the position to try and influence those issues."

English thanked his wife Mary and six children. "We have together seen the best and worst of politics. Their inspiration and support has brought us all here."

The worst of times includes English leading the National Party to a historic defeat in 2002. He said these were different times. That had been the end of Labour's first term in Government and Labour was at its peak. "They are a different opponent, and I've learned a lot since then."

He said he hoped to build on Key's work boosting New Zealand's international profile, saying it had given New Zealand a reputation as a successful economy which was open to trade, investment and immigration.

He said although New Zealand was small and had to work to get gains, it could also have influence as a "positive and forward looking country."

However, he would not be drawn on his views on US President-Elect Donald Trump, saying Key had a good relationship with President Barack Obama but all countries were still assessing what Trump would mean.