Grant Robertson wants to work with Mike King despite his criticism of Ministry of Health, Jacinda Ardern

The Finance Minister says the Government wants to continue working with Mike King, despite the mental health advocate on Monday night criticising the Ministry of Health as "morons" and Jacinda Ardern as "condescending". 

King last week announced he would be returning his New Zealand Order of Merit, which he was awarded in 2019 for services to mental health awareness and suicide prevention. 

He recounted singing the Ardern Government's praises when in 2019 it allocated $1.9 billion to improving mental health services, but in the years since, King feels nothing has changed. 

The campaigner told The AM Show last week that he doesn't know where much of that money has gone, and then on Monday night, called the Ministry of Health "morons" and out of touch with Kiwis. 

"My organisation has spoken to more kids face-to-face in this country than all of their people put together," he told The Hui. "They sit down there and they talk to their friends who have written papers… and they ignore the people that utilise these services."

King also took aim at Ardern for what he called her "condescending" response to his decision to hand his Order of Merit medal back. The Prime Minister said the Government has made "good steps" in the mental health space, but acknowledged there was more to do. 

"While I totally respect Mike's decision, his honour was about the contribution he's made to improving people's lives - and that stands," she said last week.

Asked about King's latest comments, Finance Minister Grant Robertson on Tuesday said he didn't agree with his characterisation of either the Prime Minister or the Ministry of Health.

"I have got a lot of admiration for Mike and the work that he does and has done in this space. We want to continue to work with him. Of course, we all want to see the programme fully rolled out and that is what we will be working with the minister on."

Robertson said he's in conversation with Health Minister Andrew Little about whether the $1.9 billion is being adequately spent. 

"Bear in mind that that was a five-year programme. It was always designed to ramp up as it went on," he said. "Then, just after the first year of the programme, we had COVID. I do think we have to understand that that has caused some issues. But I am certainly going to be working closely with the Minister of Health to make sure we do deliver on that programme."

He agrees the pandemic has intensified the need for more mental health support, but says it also made it more difficult to deliver those services. 

"We can't avoid that fact. I do want to work closely with Minister Little to make sure that that programme delivers what was a very substantial increase in resources. This is no longer, in my view, an issue of resourcing. It is an issue of making sure that we get the services out there."

Grant Robertson.
Grant Robertson. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Little said on Tuesday that a large chunk of the $1.9 billion has already been spent and he disagrees with King's Ministry of Health comments. 

He thinks the Government is doing enough on mental health.

"If I think about the 430 new roles, full-time equivalent roles, that have been added to primary mental health care, so people with mild to moderate conditions getting access to help that simply wasn't there two years ago. This is a four to five-year programme of change and investment that we are following through on, so we are only partway through it," he said.

"We have also made commitments to upgrade acute services, both facilities and the staff, we have a $77 million programme to attract new health professionals into mental health because we know there has been a shortage. We are partway through that programme as well.

"A lot has changed since July 1 when we started the programme, but there is still more to do."

Andrew Little.
Andrew Little. Photo credit: Newshub.

The minister was also asked for his thoughts on King returning his Order of Merit.

"That is a matter for him, but he totally deserves that because of the contribution he has made towards opening up the discussion about mental health in New Zealand. We need to be able to talk about it and people not feel stigmatised when their mental health is at risk." 

A Ministry of Health spokesperson was unable to appear on The Hui to respond to King on Monday. However, Toni Gutschlag, the ministry's deputy Director-General of mental health and addiction, said in a statement they are committed to making sure mental wellbeing support and services are available to young people.

"Good progress is being made in rolling out a large programme of work that will see young people have greater access to and choice of mental health and addiction information and support," she said. 

Youth-specific mental health services are receiving investment, Gutschlag said, while there is also a mental health professional in over 195 GPs around the country that young people can access for free. She said these services see around 10,000 people each month.

"Budget 2019 also provided funding to expand School-Based Health Services to all publicly-funded decile 5 schools, providing coverage for an additional 21,000 students," she says.

"In 2018 we invested in Mana Ake - Stronger for Tomorrow, providing wellbeing support to approximately 60,000 students in years 1-8 across Canterbury and Kaikoura schools. Over the next year, we are designing similar services in five more areas around the country: Northland, Counties Manukau, Bay of Plenty, Lakes, and West Coast. This is part of the Government's commitment to roll Mana Ake out across New Zealand."