Defence Minister Address To RSA National Council
13 June 2000
84th National Council of the RSA, Michael Fowler Centre Wellington.
Address by Mark Burton
Your National President, David Cox; National Vice President – Colin Topp, your Chief Executive – Pat Herbert, other members of the National Executive Committee, delegates and members of the New Zealand Returned Services' Association and other distinguished guests.
I am particularly honoured to be here today to address you on the occasion of your 84th National Council meeting. Your association was one of the first groups to welcome, and brief me, after I was given the portfolio of Veterans' Affairs, and has been most helpful in retaining contact and keeping me informed on the issues that veterans face.
I would like to warmly congratulate the Association and all of its members for having been granted Royal recognition and for now being the Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association – a richly deserved recognition, and one I was pleased to support.
You are (probably) aware that as well as having responsibility for Veterans' Affairs, I am also the Minister of Defence. A new approach to defence was one of the key policies of the Labour Alliance Government when it was elected.
The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee process provided opportunity for wide public involvement and debate on defence issues and priorities, as the Committee prepared its Defence Beyond 2000 Report. We have built on the committee’s work and taken note of the wide input.
Next week we will be releasing the Government’s Defence Policy Framework, setting out the key elements of our approach to defence, including our priorities and how we see the shape and role of the New Zealand Defence Force in the future.
I cannot pre empt that release, but it is appropriate that I comment briefly on the future role for our Defence Force. Recent events in Fiji and the Solomon's serve to remind us that we are not a nation living in isolation. The activities of our Pacific neighbours have an enormous impact on how we perceive our security and the role that we have in assisting the security of our region.
We believe that our prime defence interest is to protect New Zealanders both here and abroad and to ensure our territorial sovereignty while meeting our shared commitments with Australia and fulfilling our obligations and responsibilities in the South Pacific.
In order to meet those priorities, we need a defence force that can respond quickly and effectively to situations that require our involvement. And, let me quite clear, we need, and will have, a defence force that is trained and equipped for combat.
As a priority, our greatest current needs are therefore to upgrade the Army's equipment, to ensure that there is effective air and naval transport and support capabilities, and to maintain an effective maritime surveillance capability.
Once the defence policy framework has been released, the Ministry of Defence will proceed with a number of capability reviews. These reviews will take place, over the next few months, within the context of the policy framework.
Together they will form the defence
assessment that will set the priorities for capital
expenditure for the future.
I would like to reiterate what the Prime Minister told you yesterday – that there will be major expenditure on re-equipping the armed forces in the coming years.
Now I would like to swap hats and to address you as Minister of Veteran's Affairs.
I am very aware of the debt that this country owes to its men and women who have taken part in armed conflicts around the world.
In recognition of that debt and to ensure that veterans’ receive the entitlements due to them, the last Government established the Office of Veterans’ Affairs, with the wholehearted support of the Opposition. It is now almost a year since the Office was established and there is no doubt that it has been well received by veterans' organisations.
Similarly it is now just over a year since the day to day management of war pensions and associated allowances was centralised within the (WINZ) War Pensions Central Processing Unit in Hamilton.
That office, which I visited recently, is now a fully functional entity employing 29 staff. The Unit receives in excess of 250 calls daily and processes some 1000 pieces of mail per day.
I understand that the Unit has been very well received by the RSA. Given that both veterans and the RSA had previously expressed considerable concern about the involvement of WINZ in the war pensions process, I would like to publicly acknowledge the level of work and efficiency achieved through this focussed unit.
Many of you will have met Margaret Faulkner who - as the acting director – worked so hard to get both the Office of Veterans’ Affairs and the Unit up and running. And I'm sure that you will also welcome and work with her successor – Jessie Gunn.
This Government has been in office for just over six months and I am pleased to be able to report on what has been achieved so far.
As Helen Clark mentioned yesterday, a key achievement has been to honour both the Labour and Alliance’s pre-election commitment to restore the level of the New Zealand Superannuation to its pre-cut level. I had a personal commitment to see that restoration happen – I know how so many of my older constituents suffered when their income was cut.
And the Government was pleased to honour its promise to nuclear test veterans.
In 1957 and '58, the British Government tested thermonuclear weapons in the central Pacific Ocean on Christmas and Malden Islands.
New Zealand was invited to send two frigates to act as weather ships. The Holland Government in 1957 agreed to this request and sent HMNZ ships Pukaki and Rotoiti, which participated in four tests.
A year later, the Nash Government sent Pukaki to participate in a further five tests. In total, 528 naval personnel took part in the operation named "Operation Grapple".
As you know, many veterans of Operation Grapple believe there is a link between their radiation exposure and subsequent disabilities in their children. They made many representations to the previous Government and you will be aware of the promises given, and then broken.
I was pleased therefore to be able to work through an agreement with the Nuclear Test Veterans Association and to attend their annual conference in April, to present to their chairman, Roy Sefton, a cheque for $200,000.
That money will be used to support further research into the effects of exposure to nuclear testing, and to support veterans in a variety of other ways consistent with the aims of their charitable trust.
A third achievement of this Government has been to make significant progress on the somewhat vexed issue of medallic recognition. This is an ongoing issue for many service personnel. We are addressing a long-standing grievance by ensuring that many more of those involved in operational military service receive appropriate New Zealand medallic recognition.
Medals are awarded to recognise service that is beyond the normal requirements of peacetime service. Deserving service by New Zealand personnel should be recognised by a New Zealand award. This has not always been the case in the past.
Acting on the advice of a working party, which included representatives from the New Zealand Defence Force and this organisation, the Government is placing a new emphasis on a distinct New Zealand recognition.
The policy will be applied retrospectively to 1952 for qualifying operations. That reflects the accession of Queen Elizabeth II, and it also coincides with the first peacekeeping deployments of New Zealand personnel.
It will not mean that automatic award of medals where service has already been adequately recognised by the New Zealand government. However, there are at least a dozen military operations conducted since 1952 in which New Zealand personnel have not received a distinctly New Zealand award for their service. This will now be rectified.
Cabinet has agreed eight principles to be applied against each operation. And I’d like to thank the RSA for their assistance on this. These will form the template for retrospective recognition. Priority will be for operations where international, such as UN, medals may have been awarded, but where there was no distinctive NZ medal.
Operational service in places such as Cyprus or Pakistan through to the present day where no New Zealand award has been made will be considered as priorities against the template.
Approximately 1700 personnel involved in past operations may now be eligible for a New Zealand General Service Medal (NZGSM). The NZDF is currently researching and preparing the criteria for retrospective recognition and I am hopeful that I will have these available for release shortly.
There are still some outstanding issues associated with medallic recognition which I will continue to work on.
As part of ensuring ongoing medallic recognition I was also pleased to announce recently that a distinct New Zealand medal will be awarded to recognise service in East Timor. I expect that the tender for the production of the East Timor medal will be accepted this month.
And, most recently, we have been pleased to ensure that the veterans of that 'forgotten war' – the Korean War – are remembered and honoured. As well as providing a grant towards this year's activities, the Government, through the New Zealand Defence Force, is also ensuring ongoing support for commemorations relating to a number of the key events of that war 50 years ago.
We are fully aware of the debt that we owe to those service men and women who took part in one of our largest deployments. We have not forgotten them or the 43 of their colleagues who died for their country.
I’d like to comment now on some outstanding veterans' issues that I hope to address. These are the issues that veterans tell me they would like to see us 'put right'. It is the ‘putting right’ that counts although sometimes the ‘putting right’ may not be as immediate as we would all like.
In 1998, the previous Government initiated an inquiry into the health status of children of Vietnam and Operation Grapple veterans, chaired by Sir Paul Reeves. That Government, in November last year, accepted the report and its recommendations.
This Thursday will see the first Budget of this Government. I do not wish of course to upstage my colleague the Minister of Finance. But I can tell you that there will be a provision in the Budget for the Office of Veterans’ Affairs to carry out further research into the health issues of children of Vietnam and Operation Grapple veterans, and to identify the ongoing support needed.
In addition, the RSA has met with me to discuss a Veterans' Health Card. I am looking into this and will be discussing further with my colleagues, the Ministers of Health and Social Services, how we can best meet the needs of veterans who require health assistance.
I am particularly concerned to ensure that former prisoners of war are receiving the maximum assistance they are entitled to under the War Pensions Act 1954. It is recognised that certain veterans do have special needs and POWs are likely to be such a group.
The Office of Veterans' Affairs has already undertaken preliminary work for me in identifying POWs with the intention of encouraging their access to war pensions and other entitled benefits.
There are a number of other outstanding issues to ‘put right’.
You are all no doubt aware that Section 80(A) of the War Pensions Act gives me the discretion to determine whether a particular operational mission should be declared as an emergency for war pension purposes.
Past decisions under the provision of this section have been made on an ad hoc basis and this has led to discontent by some Service groups and difficulties in war pension decision-making.
instructed the Office of Veterans’ Affairs to work closely
with the NZDF to develop a transparent decision making
process. This will mean that when Government commits to any
future operational deployments, a decision is made at that
time regarding its status as an emergency for purposes of
war pensions and eligibility for burial in a service
I have also instructed the Office to work with NZDF in seeking retrospective recognition for some past operational deployments where the issue of status as an emergency has not yet been considered.
In addition, I am aware that the current placement of Veterans' Pension legislation in the Social Welfare (Transitional Provisions) Act 1990 has long been a contentious issue. That placement was made merely as a transitional measure to ensure that the legislation was introduced on time from 1 April 1990, along with New Zealand superannuation.
The RSA has always maintained that the legislation should be placed in the War Pensions Act 1954. It is the RSA's view - and that of many veterans – that with the legislation's current placement there is a perception that the Veteran's Pension is merely a "social welfare benefit" and this does not recognise the unique status of veterans.
The current placement of the legislation also fails to recognise the common link between Veterans' Pensions and War Pensions in terms of disablement and service. There are distinct benefits to be gained from combining all war-related pensions into the same piece of legislation.
I have made a bid for the required changes to be included in the already busy 2000 legislative programme.
At the same time the rehabilitation needs of veteran pensioners, who are under the retirement age, will be examined.
I have also been made aware recently of the anomaly where veterans receiving veterans’ pension lose the whole of their pension immediately that they start to work. People receiving other pensions can work and their pension is affected by an abatement, not a total loss.
I have instructed the Office of Veterans’ Affairs to work with WINZ to review this matter.
To conclude – I would like to again acknowledge that the nature of military service places a special obligation on Governments, as agents of the Crown, to safeguard the wellbeing of service personnel who have to act as directed to meet the interests of the country and its citizens.
Part of our meeting that obligation lies in our willingness and commitment to support our veterans. This Government believes in that commitment – in just six months I think we have made a positive start – and we will be continuing to work hard with the Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association and other veterans' associations to ensure that this country honours those people who have taken part in deployments on our behalf. We will not forget them.
Thank you again for the opportunity to address you today. I wish you well for the rest of your 84th National Council meeting.