Helen Clark Address to RSA National Council
Monday 14 June 2004
Rt Hon Helen Clark
Returned Services’ Association
Annual National Council Meeting
Monday 14 June 2004
Thank you for the invitation once again to address the National Council Meeting.
The past year has been a busy one for the government on many of the issues in which the RSA takes an interest, and I will comment on some of them today. The Minister of Defence and the Minister of Veterans’ Affairs will speak to you in more detail on issues in their portfolios later in the conference.
At the outset, however, I wish to record the government’s appreciation to outgoing President, Dave Cox, for his many decades of service to the RSA movement.
The RSA depends on men and women prepared to give their time as officeholders and volunteers. Dave has done that at all levels of the organisation.
While Dave and the government haven’t always agreed on everything, as is to be expected, I believe we’ve held each other in mutual respect. We wish you well, Dave, for your retirement.
The New Zealand Defence Force is highly regarded internationally for its professionalism and its skill.
The government believes that when the cause is right and when the Defence Force has the capacity to contribute, we should make the effort to help.
Over the past year, these conditions have led us to deploy around a thousand defence force personnel offshore in a wide range of operations. None of the deployments are without danger, and many operate against a high level of threat.
New Zealand has made a very significant contribution to stabilising Afghanistan. We don’t want to see Afghanistan become a failed state and a haven for international terrorists again.
There is a clear pathway for Afghanistan, supervised by the United Nations, to move to an elected government under its new constitution.
The New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamian has been helping with the election process, and supporting both central and local government in the province. It has also undertaken important aid projects. Representatives of many other countries have been visiting our team because it is regarded as a model operation.
As well, we have the SAS planning and executing long range surveillance missions to help with security in the run up to the Afghan elections.
Other New Zealand personnel are in military headquarters in Kabul and at Bagram Airbase, and some have been helping to train the Afghan Army which must eventually take over national security.
In Iraq, our engineering group of around 60 personnel continue to do good work on the ground on water supply and basic construction. Last week I was in Norway, a country which like New Zealand opposed the war in Iraq, but also like New Zealand has sent military engineers to help reconstruction for one year.
In August last year we also deployed to the Solomon Islands, along with other member nations of the Pacific Island Forum. The military mission there working alongside police from several nations, has succeeded in restoring law and order. Now New Zealand is making a big contribution to basic education in the Solomon Islands, which is badly needed for the country’s future development.
As well we continue to support a range of other international missions, from the Sinai, to the Balkans, Africa, and South East Asia. Given the many conflicts around the world, I am sure our forces will continue to be called on by the UN, and I am confident that the New Zealand Defence Force will rise to every challenge put to it.
The government adopted a Long Term Development Plan for defence in 2002, so that we could plan for upgrading our equipment over time and in an orderly way.
Already the two RNZAF 757s have proved their value with the need to transport personnel regularly over long distances. Planning for other upgrades and replacements for the Air Force is well advanced.
Final decisions are also close on the major re-equipment programme for the Navy. This is a half a billion dollars project, and will see the Navy acquiring new long range, medium range, and inshore vessels.
The army is taking possession of the new light armoured vehicles, and later this year the new light operational vehicles will begin arriving. As well there are significant new weapons and defence systems being acquired. All in all, the army’s capability will be significantly enhanced.
This has been a big year for the Office of Veterans’ Affairs which takes responsibility for co-ordinating New Zealand participation in major commemorations. They are greatly assisted by the New Zealand Defence Force, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage for which I am responsible.
More than 200 veterans travelled to the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of Cassino; 50 with the RNZAF, and another 150 with a partial government subsidy. They participated fully in a week of commemorations, attending other nations’ ceremonies as well as our own.
It was sad indeed to be with the veterans in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Cassino, and to see the 343 graves of New Zealanders, many in their early twenties. Looking up at where the enemy positions were at the top of the hill, one understands the overwhelming odds our people faced.
Then just over a week ago I was in Normandy with our official delegation, including eleven veterans, for the sixtieth anniversary of the D-Day landings. Let us not forget that more than 10,000 New Zealanders were involved, working from within the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Again, the bravery of those who took part was simply overwhelming.
For next year, the government will be planning how to commemorate appropriately the ninetieth anniversary of Gallipoli and the sixtieth anniversaries of the end of the war in Europe and in the Pacific.
Providing the planning process goes smoothly, I hope it will be possible to dedicate the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at the National War Memorial later this year. Thank you to the RSA which has given unstinting support to the project.
A budget has also been approved for the construction of a New Zealand memorial in Hyde Park in London, and provision is being made for a commemorative project at Gallipoli too.
The Budget contained a very important health announcement for people waiting for major joint surgery, of the kind done on hips and knees.
Over the next four years we will be doubling the number of these operations which are done every year.
Over the past four and a half years we’ve made a lot of progress in shortening waiting times for treatment, but orthopaedics was an area where progress wasn’t fast enough.
With the new budget, we will move to doing as many major joint operations per head of population as are done in Britain, and more than are currently done per capita in Australia.
Bad hips and bad knees are not only painful; they also limit mobility and independence and destroy quality of life.
That’s why I am personally so pleased to see the new initiative, as I know it will enable many people to get a new lease of life much more quickly than in the past.
More good news is on the way for older New Zealanders on 1 July.
That’s the day when all those aged 65 and over, enrolled with doctors in the Primary Health Organisations, will have access to lower fees and the $3 prescription charge.
By the end of this year, between 85 and 90 per cent of New Zealanders will be enrolled with the PHOs, which means most superannuitants will be covered by the lower cost scheme.
These improvements in primary health care are the most significant improvements since the passage of the Social Security Act under the First Labour Government in the 1930s.
The legislation to phase out asset testing is working its way through Parliament at present and will take effect on 1 July next year.
At that time there will be a huge increase in the exemption level before asset testing applies.
It will rise from the current threshold of $15,000 for a single person and $30,000 for a couple to $150,000. Thereafter it will rise by $10,000 per annum.
This is an expensive policy, starting at $110 million a year next year, and rising to $170 million a year in five years time. But we believe that it is fair to begin removing what older people have long felt is a serious injustice.
Finally, on superannuation, the government is strongly committed to maintaining New Zealand Superannuation on its present terms and conditions.
When we came into government, we acted quickly to stop the cuts to Superannuation which the previous government had put in place.
That change means that superannuitants are significantly better off than they would have been. Indeed married couples are more than $1,100 a year better off. That goes a long way towards paying the rates !
In this year’s Budget we are investing another $2.1 billion into the New Zealand Superannuation Fund. The Fund is essential for securing New Zealand Superannuation.
At the peak of numbers of over 65s in the population, which will be about double the current number, the Fund will meet around 36 per cent of the total cost of New Zealand Superannuation. That will leave only a relatively small proportion of the cost to be funded out of general taxation over and above what we pay now.
I hope that in this speech today I have been able to cover issues of interest to a wide range of RSA members.
I thank the Royal New Zealand RSA for its willingness to work with government on many matters, from medallic recognition, to commemorations, and health and welfare policy.
I wish all delegates a happy and productive conference and look forward to meeting your new leadership.