A region of huge potential that hasn't had the attention from past governments that it needed or deserved — that's Labour leader Jacinda Ardern's take on Northland.
Ardern made a last visit to the North ahead of the October 17 election yesterday to open a Hundertwasser-inspired civic hub in Kawakawa, the culmination of a decade-long dream in the once depressed, now booming, Bay of Islands town.
The hub combines a library, council service centre, public toilets and showers, a workshop, a gallery and displays about the late Austrian artist whose world-famous public toilets transformed the town. An ātea, or town square, is also part of the project.
Next Ardern visited Puketi Forest, where kauri dieback disease was confirmed earlier this year, to announce a $32m fund to fight the disease threatening Northland's iconic kauri trees, and heard from community groups in Moerewa working to combat P and make cold homes healthier.
She also took time out — as National leader Judith Collins did last week — to tell the Advocate about her aspirations for Northland and her tumultuous three years as Prime Minister.
What she wanted for the region was a chance for all Northlanders to realise their potential.
''That we have housing for every whanau, that we have full employment, that people get the same healthcare that everyone in New Zealand should expect ... When we make sure we're providing all those things, that's when people fulfil their potential.''
She dismissed the idea that Northland was some kind of problem region.
''This is an area of huge potential but there hasn't been as much focus on fulfilling it as there should have been. We've been trying to turn that around in these past three years, for example through the Provincial Growth Fund.''
Te Hononga, which had employed a raft of contractors, trainees and artists, was just one project which had brought ''a huge range of opportunities'' while also creating a legacy.
Ardern ''absolutely'' believed Northland's main problem was that it had been neglected.
The PGF had been designed to target areas such as Northland where investment was needed most, she said, not to capture votes.
If, as current polling suggested, NZ First — for whom the $3 billion PGF was a central plank in the coalition agreement — was not returned to Parliament, that would not mean an end to investment in the region.
If re-elected the government would keep rolling out allocated PGF funding and see through the delivery of promised projects. Labour had also put aside $200m in seed funding for new regional development projects.
Her party had yet to make a decision on the future of Northport, though relocation of Ports of Auckland was a matter of ''not if but when and where''.
''It's such a significant move we have to make sure we've got it absolutely right. We haven't ruled anything in or out yet.''
She did, however, rule out a wealth tax or capital gains tax, to help make housing more affordable, if Labour won another term.
When elected Ardern made combating child poverty a priority. She said the government was on the right track, with changes such as meals in schools, winter energy payments and paid parental leave extension making a difference, but she wouldn't be satisfied until the job was done. One of the most immediate changes after the 2017 election was in the Government's approach to Waitangi Day.
Recent prime ministers had spent a few hours at Waitangi or avoided it altogether; Ardern made a point of staying for five days. Even five days wasn't enough to do Waitangi justice, she said.
''I wanted to demonstrate my commitment to doing things differently, that was one way I could do it. A few things have become tradition now — meeting the Māori wardens, the waka camp, the breakfast — and I'll do those as long as I'm in the job.''
When Ardern asked Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis what past prime ministers had done on Waitangi Day he told her about the private VIP breakfast at the hotel.
Instead, Ardern and her Ministers set up a barbecue at the Treaty Grounds and made bacon butties for anyone who showed up.
''I think it embodies what we should all hold onto as a nation. Yes, I might have the job of Prime Minister but that should never remove you from the people. Being behind a barbecue is about as Kiwi a way you can demonstrate that as possible.''
The Treaty Grounds also feature in Ardern's favourite Northland memory, thanks to a family holiday when she was about 9 or 10.
''I remember that holiday really well, standing on the grounds as my parents made us pose for pictures. I remember my dad, he loves history, telling me the stories of the places we were in. I want all our kids to experience that.''
Asked about her highlight of the past three years Ardern said she was proud of the Government's achievements but, when people looked back in history, she suspected the response to unplanned events such as the March 15 terror attack and the Covid pandemic would stand out.
''But I also hope they'll think about the fact that we were such a unified country during a period that could be really devastating. It wasn't a given that we would come through in the way we did, together.''
As for her darkest time: ''Terror, pandemics, volcanoes ... It's hard to pick one''.
Ardern refused to make any guesses about the election.
''2017 taught me never to make predictions,'' she said.