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PM's Address To RSA National Conference

Rt Hon Helen Clark

Prime Minister

ADDRESS TO

Returned Services Association

National Conference

Michael Fowler Centre

Wellington

2.30 pm

Monday 11 June 2001

Thank you for the invitation to once again address the National Council of the RSA.

In the last year there have been many decisions taken on defence, veterans' affairs and superannuation issues, and I will summarise these in my speech to you today.

Defence

In June last year the government released its Defence Policy Framework, setting out the roles and tasks expected of the New Zealand Defence Force.

The Framework followed on logically from the work of Parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committee, the general thrust of which the RSA is very familiar with.

In essence the Committee argued that the New Zealand Defence Force was trying to cover too many capabilities without the resources to cover them all adequately.

Given that it was unlikely that huge extra resources could be devoted to defence, in the absence of any crisis or threat and given many other competing priorities for spending, the Committee reasoned that it would be better to focus resources on the most useful and most used capabilities; in other words to equip our defence force in adequate depth, rather than continuing a breadth of capability which could not be adequately resourced.

The thrust of the Select Committee's report was picked up in the defence policy the New Zealand Labour Party took to the 1999 elections, where it was made clear that army re-equipment was a high priority; that no more ANZAC frigates would be purchased; and that the costs and benefits of retaining an air combat force would be immediately reviewed.

Prior to finalising the Defence Policy Framework, the government commissioned reviews from both the External Assessments Bureau and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the strategic circumstances facing New Zealand. These reviews concluded, not surprisingly, that no threat to New Zealand was on the horizon.

That gives New Zealand considerable discretion in how it designs its defence force.

The decisions on the defence force taken over the past year are premised on the assumption that New Zealand is internationalist in outlook and is willing to deploy its forces overseas. That is very much in the New Zealand tradition - and will continue to be. This is the very opposite of the isolationism our political opponents mistakenly allege.

New Zealanders right now take considerable pride in the work being done by our troops in East Timor. It is our desire to see New Zealand able to continue such work in future and to be as well equipped as possible for it.

That is why orders have been placed for in excess of one hundred light armoured vehicles and new radio equipment at a cost of around $800 million. Tenders are also out for the replacement of light operational vehicles.

Major expenditure is to come on the C130 Hercules and the Iroquois helicopters, both so essential to military deployment. They will be either upgraded or replaced.

Prior to the recent defence announcements, the government was able to consider four major reports on aspects of the defence force - on the land force, sealift options, maritime surveillance, and the future of our combat force.

We also studied carefully the cost and affordability of the various options for upgrades, replacement, and modernisation.

We have ended up with a commitment to invest two billion dollars in capital spending over the next ten years and to increase net operating funding for defence spending by over $300 million over the next five years, and around $700 million over the next ten years.

The expenditure will cover upgrades of the Orions' equipment, and the purchase of a new multi-role, long range, vessel to replace the frigate Canterbury. Options for medium range naval patrol vessels will also be considered.

Within the resources we have, continuation of the air-combat force was not possible. That was not a decision taken lightly. But in the end the cost of modernisation, the absence of a threat to New Zealand, and the fact that the Skyhawks have not been deployed to an international operation in thirty one years all counted against retaining the capability.

Far from representing some kind of retreat into isolationism, these decisions recognise that New Zealand always deploys in the company of others and will continue to do so. What we want to ensure is that when we do deploy we do so not only with well equipped troops but with up to date equipment as well.

With respect to deployment, we have decided to offer our current contribution to East Timor up until November 2002. That should see the East Timorese through to independence and to a time when the United Nations will want to be downsizing the force.

This year the government has made substantial improvements to pay in the armed forces, particularly for the lower ranks, and for those in hard to retain occupations. Armed forces' pay had not kept up with movement elsewhere in the workforce in recent years.

Veterans' Affairs

A number of important decisions have been made to improve support for veterans and to remedy past injustices.

It has been of concern to the government that New Zealand has not been as proactive as, for example, Australia in meeting veterans' needs. This was especially obvious in the case of Vietnam veterans who compared the services available to them and their children with those in Australia and found them wanting.

On 23 April the government announced new services for the children and families of Vietnam and Operation Grapple veterans and improved services for veterans overall. Those decisions include:

- extra assistance to veterans' children who suffer from spina bifida and/or cleft palate. That assistance will include coverage for any additional payments for doctors, pharmaceuticals, support services and equipment.

- genetic counselling on a case by case basis will be provided for veterans' children thinking of starting their own families.

- We have recognised that being part of a veteran's family can create its own pressures. Australian research, for example, suggests that veterans' children have a higher rate of suicide. Therefore funding will be made available for individual and family counselling on a case by case basis.

- All these new health services will be offered under case management, delivered by the Office of Veterans' Affairs.

- The status of the Office of Veterans' Affairs has been boosted significantly.

- Veterans will be known as veterans and not as beneficiaries.

- We are transferring the Veterans Pension legislation out of the Social Welfare Act to the War Pensions Act.

- In a very important change, we are restoring the right of veterans of working age to undertake some paid work, without losing their entire Veteran's Pension as they now do. Some paid work can be helpful for rehabilitation, but a return to full time employment may be out of the question.

- The Secretary for War Pensions will have the discretion to waive, where appropriate, the need for a stand down period and/or the need for a medical examination if veterans reapply for the pension after a period of employment.

Taken together, we believe these changes will ensure that veterans get better service and better recognition of their circumstances.

In the announcements on 23 April, we also announced that a special payment of thirty thousand dollars was to be made to ex-prisoners of war and civilian internees of Japan, or to their surviving spouse.

Our decision followed those of the British and Canadian Governments to make such payments, and the Australian Government has followed suit in the last month.

The payment has been made in recognition of the extreme severity and hardship endured by those prisoners of war and civilian internees. The death rate for them in the camps was around twenty five per cent. Most others suffered illness and appalling mistreatment.

The recognition of this extraordinary hardship has been a long time coming. I am pleased that our government has been able to settle it.

Medallic Recognition

There have been longstanding grievances about New Zealand policy on the issuing of medals for New Zealanders who have served overseas since World War Two.

These range from post-World War Two service in Japan, to naval service at Suez, and to service in Malaya, Vietnam, and Rwanda.

Many ex-service personnel also feel they have not received New Zealand recognition for their service. They are mainly personnel with Commonwealth awards such as the Korea Medal, or the three Commonwealth General Service Medals. Vietnam veterans also consider they have not received a distinctive New Zealand medal.

In recent months the government has asked its officials to consult with veterans' organisations on a comprehensive settlement of these issues. We believe that there should be proper public recognition of service undertaken on behalf of one's country and that the system of recognition must be seen to be credible, fair, and consistent.

The government has now decided to award a New Zealand Operational Service Medal (NZOSM) to provide distinctive New Zealand medallic recognition for operational service. The NZOSM will be awarded, once only, to all personnel who have been on operational service since 1945 or who will perform operational service in the future. It is to be awarded in addition to a New Zealand, Commonwealth, United Nations, or other campaign medal which recognises a specific period of operational service.

The NZOSM is effectively a follow-on from the New Zealand War Service Medal 1939-45 which was awarded once only to all New Zealanders who served in World War Two regardless of where they served.

In addition, other specific medallic grievances have been addressed.

- The crews of the cruisers Gambia and Achilles who served in Japanese waters after Japan's surrender but before the deployment of New Zealanders to the occupation force will be awarded the New Zealand Service Medal 1946-49 with the Royal Warrant for the medal amended to include service in 1945.

- The crews of the Royal New Zealand Navy ships deployed during the Malayan Emergency will be awarded the Naval General Service Medal with the clasp "Malaya".

- The crew of HMNZS Royalist temporarily attached to the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet at the time of the Suez conflict in 1956 will be awarded the New Zealand General Service Medal (warlike), clasp "Near East".

- RNZAF Vietnam aircrew who flew into Vietnam will qualify for the Vietnam Medal under the existing Royal Warrant.

- Entitlement for the New Zealand General Service Medal (warlike), clasp "Vietnam", will be extended to 1975 to cover personnel involved in the evacuation of Saigon.

- RNZAF personnel who served in Rwanda in 1994 will receive the NZGSM (non-warlike), clasp "Rwanda".

For the future, the New Zealand Defence Force and the Honours Secretariat are considering a proposal for a New Zealand Special Service Medal which would cover service by Operational Grapple personnel and be extended to incorporate other personnel exposed to nuclear testing. Before proceeding, there would need to be consultation with affected veterans' groups.

The medallic recognition we are announcing today is comprehensive and settles longstanding grievances. The principle of proper recognition is right and the cost is minimal at an average $627,333 over each of the next three years. That is a small price to pay for putting these grievances behind us for once and all.

Superannuation

The age of most veterans means that veterans take a close interest in provision for retired New Zealanders.

As you know, last year our government honoured its pledge to restore the value of New Zealand Superannuation to where it stood before National's decision in 1998 to cut its value.

That meant that last year the married rate rose by $21.42 a week and the single rate by over $12.

This year there has again been a full cost adjustment to maintain the value of New Zealand Superannuation. The married rate has gone up by another $13.82 per week; the single living alone rate by $8.98, and the single sharing rate by $8.29.

Our government will maintain the value of New Zealand Superannuation now and in the future.

And it's the future of New Zealand Superannuation which is now before Parliament.

The Labour-Alliance Government Bill provides for the establishment of a ring fenced fund for New Zealand Superannuation to safeguard it for the future. The principle is to save now to save New Zealand Superannuation for future generations.

Each year the government will budget money from its surplus for the Superannuation Fund. This will help us cover the cost when a much higher proportion of our population is retired.

The government is still working to get a majority of votes to pass the legislation. Whether it passes or not, superannuation is bound to be an election issue and other parties will be forced to say what their policies are - if they have them!

Right now, only the Labour-Alliance government with the support of United, is promising to keep New Zealand Superannuation as it is and to fund it. We believe New Zealanders want certainty about the future of New Zealand Superannuation and we want to provide that certainty.

Conclusion

In the past year I have attended many RSA events and many commemorative functions.

Dave Cox and others were present with me in Canberra when we dedicated the spectacular New Zealand Memorial on ANZAC Parade on 24 April and opened the New Zealand exhibition at the Australian War Memorial.

Veterans were also with me at the recent sixtieth Commemoration of the Battle of Crete. That was a wonderful occasion, made very special by the hospitality of the Cretan people. Many came down from the villages where they had sheltered New Zealanders all those years ago.

I thank the RSA for all it does to support veterans and help meet their needs, and for your willingness to engage with government on many issues.

I wish you all the best for a successful National Council Meeting.


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