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PM's Address to Returned Services’ Association

Rt Hon Helen Clark Prime Minister

Address to Returned Services’ Association Annual National Council Meeting

Michael Fowler Centre Wellington

4.30 pm

Monday 9 June 2003

Thank you for the opportunity once again to address the RSA’s annual National Council meeting.

This is now the fourth time I have spoken to you as Prime Minister. These past four years have been a very busy period for policy for veterans and superannuitants and for defence, and I will comment on some of these issues today.

Overseas Deployments

As you know our government has been prepared to deploy New Zealand forces overseas where we believe they can play a useful role and where the cause is worthwhile.

In recent years New Zealand has had defence personnel deployed in a dozen or more peacekeeping operations at any one time. The most visible and the largest was our three year commitment in East Timor which ended in November, apart from a small residual number of personnel still with the UN Headquarters there.

Last year I visited the New Zealanders stationed in the Multinational Force in the Sinai, upholding the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. New Zealand personnel have been stationed there for two decades.

Operation Enduring Freedom and Afghanistan

After the 11 September terrorist attacks, the New Zealand Government was quick to offer support to combat international terrorism. Members of the SAS were deployed to Afghanistan for a year, where they served with distinction, returning home last December.

We have also had staff officers in both the US-led Coalition Headquarters in Afghanistan and with the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force in Kabul.

Since November, our frigates, first Te Kaha and then Te Mana, have operated in the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Te Mana leaves to return home at the end of the month.

A P-3 Orion and crew are also presently based in that theatre. And in a few weeks a C-130 Hercules will be deployed for three months for tactical airlift tasks in and around Afghanistan.

The government has been looking ahead to see what further contribution it might make to both Operation Enduring Freedom and to reconstruction in Afghanistan itself. We do not want Afghanistan to become a failed state that once again provides sanctuary for terrorists. Accordingly, we have balanced our contribution to the military campaign against Al Quaeda and the Taleban with offers of assistance with peacekeeping and civil-military tasks. A New Zealand C-130 recently delivered humanitarian supplies to Afghanistan from the United Arab Emirates. And we have donated $2.685 million to aid and reconstruction work.

Now we are ready to take further steps. I announced earlier this afternoon that a New Zealand reconnaissance team has gone to Afghanistan to explore how we can best contribute to what is known as a Provincial Reconstruction Team.

These teams consist of between fifty and a hundred personnel. Their role is to act as military observers and to support the ability of the Afghan Government and NGOs to get on with reconstruction work. New Zealand is expected either to lead such a team, or make a substantial contribution to one.

In addition, we will be deploying two NCOs to work with a British team providing command and leadership training to the Afghan National Army in Kabul, for twelve months from September this year.

Overall the threat level to NZDF personnel in Afghanistan is assessed as high. In the last two days German peacekeepers have been killed as they were about to leave for home.

We believe it is especially important at this time that the world not turn its back on Afghanistan, and we believe New Zealand can make a small but useful contribution to its security.

Ira

qWhile our government was not prepared to participate in the war in Iraq, we have always been prepared to support Iraq’s reconstruction, once a United Nations’ Security Council resolution cleared the way for nations other than the occupying powers to be involved.

That has now occurred. The new UN Resolution, 1483, was passed in May. It not only gives the UN itself a vital role, but also appeals to member states to help.

The government has therefore announced today that a New Zealand Defence Force engineering group of up to sixty personnel will work alongside British forces on reconstruction tasks in southern Iraq. A reconnaissance visit will take place this month.

In addition we will be contributing to training in agriculture for Iraqis and to the rebuilding of the Agriculture Ministry building in Baghdad.

Solomon Islands

Closer to home, New Zealand Defence Force personnel are in the Solomon Islands this week with representatives of the New Zealand Police, New Zealand Aid, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. There is considerable concern about the breakdown of law and order there, and there may be a need for New Zealand and Australia to do more.

Defence Acquisitions

At this conference in June 2002 the Minister of Defence released the Defence Long-Term Development Plan (LTDP). On Wednesday Mark Burton will release an updated plan at this conference.

Over the last 12 months, significant work has been done on implementing the plan. For example, the tender processes for patrol vessels, a multi-role vessel, and upgrades for the P-3 Orions and C-130 Hercules are well underway. An announcement on new Light Operational Vehicles for the Army will be made shortly.

The government has decided to consolidate Air Force operations at Ohakea and close the base at Whenuapai. The NZDF and the Ministry of Economic Development completed a review on base consolidation. They recommended consolidation at Ohakea on the grounds of the greater room for expansion, fewer flying and other restrictions, and cost savings. Ohakea is already being upgraded with a complete runway reconstruction.

Commemorations

In 2001 Veterans Affairs was given responsibility for co-ordinating official commemorations of significant New Zealand military anniversaries.

As you know, I am very keen to ensure that New Zealanders know more about this part of our nation’s history. Throughout the twentieth century, New Zealand was involved in many military deployments overseas, and they touched families throughout our country.

It is important to me that the sacrifices and contributions of those who went away are not forgotten.

One feature of our official presence at major commemorations now is the presence of senior secondary school students, who compete in an essay competition for the privilege of attending.

In the past year I led the New Zealand delegation to the sixtieth anniversary commemoration at El Alamein, which was a moving and memorable event. The harshness of the desert environment and climate brought home to us just how tough the North African Desert campaign was.

On ANZAC Day, Hon Dover Samuels was with veterans in New Caledonia. I myself had the privilege of attending ceremonies in London, at St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. I then visited World War One sites in Belgium and France, including Poperinge, Ypres, Arras, Marcoing, Le Quesnoy, and Longueval where the memory of New Zealand sacrifices is still honoured.

At the end of July I expect to be in Korea for the fiftieth anniversary of the armistice. Next year it will be important to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino.

This year the Royal New Zealand Air Force is taking possession of two 757 aircraft, and it is hoped that their larger size will enable more veterans to be included in the official parties for these major commemorations.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

In April last year, the government announced its intention to proceed with a Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, something the RSA has long advocated. Plans had been well advanced for a dedication this November, and were supported by the RSA, the Historic Places Trust, the National War Memorial Advisory Council, and Wellington City Council.

In the last couple of weeks, however, a court has found fault with Wellington City Council’s planning process, and this is delaying the project. The Ministry for Culture and Heritage will work with the City Council to meet any new planning requirements, in the hope that the Tomb can be dedicated next year as a memorial to the 27,000 New Zealanders buried in foreign lands as a result of overseas service.

Medals

As a government we have put a high priority on seeing that those who serve our country overseas get properly thanked and acknowledged.

Two years ago at this conference I announced a number of initiatives to address over half a century of medallic grievances. Since then many of these grievances have been addressed, to the satisfaction of most veterans. There has been a significant drop-off in the numbers of letters on medallic issues which the Minister of Defence and I receive.

The most significant initiative has been the institution of the New Zealand Operational Service Medal. This is awarded to all New Zealanders who had been on operational service since the end of World War II. Since the launch of the medal in June last year over 17,000 Operational Service Medals have been issued.

The second major initiative was the institution of the New Zealand Special Service medal. The first award of this medal was made to nuclear test veterans last year.

Other medallic grievances addressed included service in Japanese waters in 1945/46, Malaya in the 1950s and early 1960s, Suez in 1956, Korea post armistice, Confrontation in the 1960s, Thailand in the 1960s, Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, the Indian Ocean in the early 1980s, Sinai since 1982, and Rwanda in the 1990s.

In all, the government’s medallic initiatives have seen over 22,000 medals issued, together with over 40 kilometres of medal ribbon for full-size and miniature medals !

Work to address medallic grievances will continue. This includes issues relating to service in Southeast Asia over the last 30 years. It does not mean that everyone will get the medal they want; but rather that their case will be researched and put to government for a decision.

The RSA has had a very constructive input into the process of addressing medallic grievances and that contribution has been very much appreciated.

Veterans’ Pension and the RSA’s Health Card Proposal

I can report that progress has been made on the Veterans’ Pension, but not at this point on the Health Card, although veterans’ health needs are a high priority for us.

The changes to the Veterans’ Pension legislation have now gone through Parliament. That means that Veterans Pensioners can take on part time work without losing their pensions. This is a big step forward.

In the primary health care area, the government’s major priority is establishing lower cost health care through the Primary Health Organisations. Around one million New Zealanders are already enrolled in the PHOs, and of those seven hundred thousand are in PHOs offering lower fees. Among them are many veterans.

While we are not proposing at this time to proceed with the RSA’s Gold Card proposal, that does not mean we will not look at other options to help.

I am aware, for example, that veterans who have reached the age of eligibility for New Zealand Superannuation can receive a Veterans’ Pension only if they are in receipt of a War Disablement Pension of seventy per cent. Receipt of the Veterans’ Pension confers an automatic entitlement to a Community Services Card, without the need for asset testing. The government is investigating the threshold for the Veterans’ Pension and how Community Service Card entitlements can be maximised to enhance the health care veterans receive.

Hon George Hawkins will address you tomorrow on the Agent Orange issue, but I want to say today that I am fully supportive of the further inquiry Parliament’s Health Select Committee is undertaking on this issue.

Finally, I know that the RSA will be interested in the decisions announced by the government in April to begin the phase out of asset testing of older people in long term residential care from July 2005.

From that time, single people, and couples with both partners in care, will be able to keep up to $150,000 in assets before their assets are used to contribute to the cost of their care. That exemption level will then increase by $10,000 a year.

That is a huge step forward from the $15,000 which single people are presently able to keep and from the $30,000 which couples are presently able to keep. The change is being made in recognition of the discrimination older people in residential care have faced and because of our desire to improve their situation.

Conclusion

I wish to thank the RSA for its hospitality to me in many of the clubs over the past year, and for your willingness to work with us on many projects.

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

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