Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern talks to political reporter Mike Houlahan about the challenges of her first two years in office, and the election a year from now.

Being Prime Minister is a study in contrasts.

After spending about half an hour posing for photographs with bubbling, excited recipients of the Otago Daily Times Class Act awards, Jacinda Ardern is now contemplating her pivotal role in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosques massacre, and if she had a moment when she considered the enormity of it all.

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"I don't think there was a moment really, even several months after, when we were doing the Christchurch Call work and really trying to make sure that we were addressing all the issues that arose out of March 15.

"My moment will probably come when I leave office ... I hope no-one experiences anything like it in the future."

Whatever Ardern did before March 15 and whatever she does afterwards, the Christchurch terror attack will be the landmark moment of her prime ministership.

Ardern says the the national response to the mosque attacks tapped into a series of values that New Zealanders hold. Photo / Alan Gibson
Ardern says the the national response to the mosque attacks tapped into a series of values that New Zealanders hold. Photo / Alan Gibson

"I think that by and large the national response tapped into a series of values that New Zealanders hold, but I also don't think we should be complacent," Ardern said.

"We recognised that there were things we needed to fix immediately, like for instance the banning of military-style semi automatic weapons and assault rifles, and that has been done.

"We are now working on wider amendments to make sure that responsible gun users, particularly in our rural sector, are still able to access what they need, but we have put further checks and balances into our system."

Dealing with the aftermath of Christchurch delayed much of the Government agenda, notably the response to the mental health inquiry.

With $1.9billion spent on mental health and addiction services in this year's Budget, Ardern was confident that money would make a genuine difference.


"We talked about the missing middle, the group of people who would really benefit from primary mental health care as soon as issues arise, rather than waiting for them to present in the emergency department or, worse yet, in our suicide statistics," Ardern said.

"We identified that gap, we designed a plan to roll out primary mental health care throughout the country, through GPs, through iwi providers, through medical centres throughout the country.

"It will take us five years, but we know what we are looking to deliver."

Mental health is not the only multimillion-dollar national health initiative unveiled by Ardern in recent months.

Reforming cancer care was a Labour campaign policy yet to be delivered on, but which was galvanised by Winton man Blair Vining.

Since his terminal cancer diagnosis, Vining and his family have devoted themselves to improving cancer screening and treatment, and organised a high-profile nationwide petition.


Last weekend, a living embodiment of the havoc cancer wreaks, Vining watched as Ardern released the cancer action plan.

While the presence of Vining and wife Melissa was unplanned, having someone put a face to an issue was valuable, Ardern said.

"For every issue, it's important to think beyond statistics, and for cancer that is particularly the case.

"Given that cancer in some form or other will have touched the life of every single member of Parliament, that's always in your mind when you consider those issues and it would be the same for all of us."

Vining's fate may have been different had he lived elsewhere in New Zealand: there are striking regional differences in cancer detection and treatment statistics, which have come to be called the "postcode lottery".

Eliminating that disparity was the goal of the cancer action plan, Ardern said.


"I don't think anyone in New Zealand expects, given the investment we put into our health system, that anyone should experience a variation in the treatment that they get.

"One thing we have done in the past, really expensive forms of treatment and care like linear accelerators have been left up to DHBs.

"They are very expensive, which means some DHBs have not purchased new ones when actually they deliver more effective and efficient care, so we have purchased 12 and tried to reach into the regions where previously that care has not been able to be accessed."

Maternity services are another area when regional service levels differ.

The long-running fight over the future of the Lumsden Maternity Centre made it as far as Ardern's desk, and she said the Southern District Health Board's performance in this area remained on her radar screen.

"We've made it clear to the DHB that we expect mums to have safe and high-quality facilities available to them," she said.


"There are two reviews taking place and our expectation is that any changes that are needed to ensure women and their babies are getting the services they need will be made with urgency."

Regional education, specifically the vocational training sector, has been a vexed issue in both Southland and Otago.

Both Otago Polytechnic and the Southern Institute of Technology have waged a spirited fight against the Government's plans for a national polytechnic, and Ardern said their submissions had been listened to.

"What we are trying to do in the way we are designing our approach to vocational training, is for it to be very localised and focused on meeting the workforce needs," she said.

"We will continue to involve and work alongside the polytechs to make sure that we fix the failures, as well as acknowledge those things that have made those polytechs that are successful a success.

"There has been good contact, good engagement and I'm confident that we can find a way through that ultimately means that we address the problem we have, of skill shortages and a sector that for a range of reasons hasn't been able to meet that."


A year from now, Ms Ardern will be on the campaign trail.

It was hard to believe two years of her term had already gone, she said.

"It feels like a lot has happened, but in a very short space of time ... I think we have been really productive.

"I want us to campaign in the same way we campaigned last time, and in the way that we have governed, with a really positive focus on the future."