RSA Annual Conference - Helen Clark Speech
Rt Hon Helen Clark
RSA Annual Conference
Michael Fowler Centre
Monday 10 June 2002
Thank you for the opportunity once again to address the RSA’s annual National Council meeting.
This is the third time I have come as Prime Minister, and we are in the third year of our government.
This three years has been a very busy period for policy on superannuation, veterans’ affairs, and defence, all areas of considerable interest to the New Zealand RSA which I will comment on today.
The most important change for veterans has been to New Zealand Superannuation.
As you know, a decision was made in 1998 to cut it, to the extent that one-third to half of all superannuitants would have fallen below the poverty line.
On 1 April 2000, our new government restored the rate of New Zealand Superannuation, so that for a married couple it would be paid at no less than sixty five per cent of the net, average, ordinary time wage. While this rate cannot be called luxury living, it is judged to be sufficient to enable older citizens to live in dignity, and that is our objective.
Just as important as raising the rate of payment is the decision we have made to secure New Zealand Superannuation for the future.
The Government has set up the New Zealand Superannuation Fund to save for the future.
Each year out of our budget surplus, we are investing in the fund. In the current financial year, $600 million has been invested, and for the next, another $1.2 billion will be invested.
This money is ringfenced and can only be used to pay New Zealand Superannuation. In the future, when the numbers of retired people are far greater than they are now, we will be able to ensure that superannuation is affordable by drawing down on the fund.
Those who oppose the fund cannot tell you how they would pay for superannuation. We suspect they would raise the age of eligibility, cut the rate, and probably means test payments as well. I am determined to see that they do not get that opportunity.
Last year we greatly strengthened the Office of Veterans’ Affairs and gave it new responsibilities. It has taken over work from what was the Department of Work and Income, so that we can give a better service to veterans.
For example, medically qualified staff employed by Veterans’ Affairs have taken the former Work and Income Department’s places on the War Pensions Claims Panels, so that we can get more consistent and better informed decisions about veterans’ claims and entitlements.
From January this year, Veterans’ Affairs has had a new case management system. Already two hundred people have been assisted. Through this system Veterans’ Affairs can co-ordinate services for veterans from a range of agencies. A free phone line is available for veterans to ring the office.
These changes were made following strong representations made by Vietnam veterans, but the better services are of benefit to all veterans.
Another important change which Veterans’ Affairs has been overseeing is the set of amendments to the Veterans’ Pension.
Legislation is now before Parliament to bring the Veterans’ Pension under the War Pensions Act, and to enable veterans who are under retiring age but on the pension to work part time.
It has been a pleasure for me to work with Veterans’ Affairs and its chief executive, Colonel Jessie Gunn, on many such issues. They and the Defence Force helped the government to make decisions on medallic recognition of our servicemen and women and on special recognition of our former prisoners of war of Japan. We have been making payments of $30,000 to those ex-prisoners of war and civilian internees of Japan, or to their surviving spouse.
On the medallic issues, we have been very busy. An estimated 50,000 New Zealanders who have served in operations since 1945 are eligible for the new Operational Service Medal. Some of the delegates to this conference will be receiving their medals at the special ceremony at Parliament tomorrow evening.
There are also new medals for specific operations since 1952 which never had a distinctive New Zealand medal.
As well a Special Service Medal is going to those who witnessed British atmospheric nuclear tests in the Pacific and Australia in 1956-58; American tests in 1957-58, and French tests at Moruroa in 1973.
An East Timor medal is going to all service personnel and civilians who have served in that new nation; and a New Zealand General Service Medal is being awarded for service in the Solomon Islands and in Afghanistan.
As a government we have put a high priority on seeing that those who serve our country overseas get properly thanked and acknowledged.
We have also given Veterans’ Affairs responsibility for co-ordinating New Zealand representation at significant military anniversaries. They are currently working on the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein in October. The sixtieth anniversary of Guadacanal falls in August, but it is not yet clear to me that conditions in the Solomons would permit the kind of presence one would like on such a significant occasion.
For me, highlights of this term as Prime Minister include being at the 85th anniversary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli in year 2000, and at the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of Crete last year. Through the priority we are giving to these major anniversaries, more New Zealanders are learning of our history.
I am happy to say that the oral history of the Battle of Crete which I commissioned from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage became a best seller. Later this year, we will publish our next oral history, this time on the experiences of prisoners of war. We have a forward programme of other such histories.
Just prior to ANZAC Day this year, Veterans’ Affairs launched the first in a series of education packs for use in schools. The focus of the material is on the stories of individual veterans, and the impact of their experiences on their lives. Young people are taking an increasing role in ANZAC day commemorations, and like the RSA, the government is seeking to encourage that.
In February, I launched a campaign to preserve diaries, letters, photographs and other material from New Zealand’s war experiences. The campaign is being co-ordinated by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and is aimed at encouraging people to deposit relevant material in their local library or museum. I am told the appeal has been very enthusiastically responded to, with all sorts of treasures uncovered.
In keeping with this remembrance need, contracts have been let for the installation of ex-service memorial plaques in 177 Service cemeteries throughout New Zealand. Eligibility for burial in Services Cemeteries has been extended to include service personnel who have served in East Timor, Sierra Leone and New Zealand personnel who participated in Operation Grapple in the Christmas and Malden Islands. Mark Burton will be announcing a further extension of the eligibility tomorrow.
The government is also committed to establishing a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with a proposed date of next year. Last year I instructed my officials to work on establishing the Tomb as a form of remembrance of the nation’s sacrifice in overseas wars.
In March this year I visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC. Officials there offered to assist New Zealand with advice on establishing our Tomb, as they have considerable experience in these matters. The Tomb will provide a focus for current generations to remember the sacrifice of New Zealanders in overseas conflicts and peace-keeping operations.
Tomorrow the Minister of Defence will address you on defence policy. He has brought to Cabinet proposals for the Long Term Defence Plan, and our thinking on the re-equipment and refurbishment planning is well advanced.
The new top team at the Defence Force under the leadership of Air Marshal Bruce Ferguson is working well and the government has full confidence in it.
We continue to have our service personnel posted in many corners of the world. Only last month I visited our battalion in East Timor, where our people have done an outstanding job.
The new deployments since I last addressed this conference have been in Afghanistan.
The New Zealand SAS are serving there with distinction. They seek no public recognition for what they do, but I can tell you that they are doing difficult and dangerous work and are very highly thought of.
We have also had New Zealanders in the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan working with the British forces, and they too have done a great job.
Once again, thank you for the opportunity to address the National Council. I wish you a productive conference, good fellowship, and a good year ahead.