PM Address: RNZ RSA National Council Meeting
Rt Hon Helen Clark Prime Minister - Address to ANNUAL NATIONAL COUNCIL MEETING
OF THE ROYAL NEW ZEALAND RETURNED SERVICES ASSOCIATION atMichael Fowler Centre Wellington
Thank for you once again for inviting me here today to address your National Council Meeting.
Much has happened in defence policy, funding, and deployments since our Fifth Labour-led Government took office at the end of 1999.
Ever since, we have been systematically rebuilding the New Zealand Defence Force.
The foundations were laid with the Defence Policy Framework in 2000, where we set out our vision for a modern Defence Force, made up of a motorised and readily deployable army, an enhanced navy, and an updated air force, structured to meet New Zealand’s defence and security needs.
The detailed Government Defence Statement which followed this in 2001, set out the government’s priorities for rebuilding our military capability.
With the ten-year Long Term Development Plan in 2002, we began a new era of certainty for defence acquisition and planning with realistic funding. Under the Development Plan, more than $2 billion has already been committed to essential new equipment purchases and upgrades across all three services including: Life extension and upgrade of the C-130 Hercules communications and navigation equipment.
Upgrade of the P-3 Orion mission systems and navigation equipment.
321 Light Operational Vehicles to replace the old land rover fleet.
Tactical Mobile Radio Communications for the Army and Air Force.
A multi-role vessel, two offshore patrol vessels and four inshore patrol vessels for the Navy.
105 Light Armoured Vehicles to replace the old M113 armoured personnel carriers.
Two Boeing 757 strategic lift aircraft.
Selection of the NH-90 to replace the Iroquois helicopters.
In this year’s Budget, further major steps have been taken.
$4.6 billion extra over ten years has been provided for operational funding. This Defence Sustainability Initiative aligns long-term personnel recruitment, training, development, and resources with the capital acquisition programme of the Long Term Development Plan.
Every year from and including 2001, we have funded pay rises for military personnel. This year’s increases average 4.3 per cent. In times of low unemployment, our Defence Force pay and conditions have to be sufficient to retain skilled and trained people.
Our government has been prepared to deploy New Zealanders overseas where the cause is right. Currently, New Zealand is contributing Defence Force personnel to five UN- led peacekeeping operations, and we make substantial contributions to a range of other UN-endorsed, multinational, or regional operations, including in Afghanistan, the Solomon Islands, the Sinai, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The work of our 123-strong Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamian, Afghanistan has been outstanding. It is highly regarded by the Afghan authorities and by the forces of the other nations operating in Afghanistan.
A few weeks ago, Defence Minister Mark Burton and I announced the third rotation of SAS personnel to Afghanistan. This is part of New Zealand's ongoing commitment to the international effort against terrorism. With parliamentary and provincial elections in Afghanistan scheduled for September, improving security there helps ensure that the elections are fair and credible, and helps bring stability to the country and the region.
When disaster strikes, New Zealand has a proud record of stepping in to help. We can all be very proud of the role New Zealand Defence Force staff have played in relief operations overseas – such as in the massive tsunami relief operations in South East Asia after Boxing Day and into the New Year; and at home, where Regular and Territorial Force personnel have been at the forefront of emergency response operations, working alongside emergency services in flood affected communities.
The pride we take in the efforts of New Zealanders who have served overseas could be seen last November, with the remarkable public interest in the return of the Unknown Warrior, and the dedication of the Tomb as his last resting place. This was a deeply moving occasion. Returned servicemen and women have hoped for such a tomb ever since the end of the First World War, and I am proud that it is our government which has seen the project through. The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is a place to honour all those who have laid down their lives for New Zealand. It is a lasting tribute to our people lost in war, and it is a place of solace for their families.
Now the government is taking the next steps towards expanding the commemorative precinct around the Tomb and the National War Memorial. We are working to acquire adjacent land for a New Zealand War Memorial Park. Our objective is to create around the National War Memorial an oasis of beauty and tranquillity which is conducive to quiet reflection.
As you know, I have placed great emphasis as Prime Minister on ensuring that New Zealand does appropriately commemorate the anniversaries of significant military engagements overseas. Those events were a significant part of our nation’s history and must not be forgotten.
This year it was Gallipoli’s turn, with the ninetieth anniversary. I was proud to lead our delegation of veterans of deployments from World War II onwards, and of current servicemen and women, cadet force members, and secondary school students.
We joined around 18,000 New Zealanders and Australians who had travelled to Gallipoli for the Anzac Day services. The interest of young people in what happened there ensures that the sacrifice and toil of the ANZACs will never be forgotten.
This year sees the commemorations of the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe and the Pacific.
In May, official wreath laying ceremonies in Auckland and Wellington were held to mark VE Day.
Yesterday, 10 July, was the day the British Government chose to commemorate the end of World War Two in both theatres. A wreath laying ceremony was held at the Cenotaph at the Auckland War Memorial Museum so that Prince William, on behalf of the Queen, could thank New Zealand for its support of Britain during the war.
Next month, veterans will travel to New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands, and ceremonies will be held in Auckland and Wellington commemorating the end of the war against Japan.
Since I have been Prime Minister, our government has funded and completed two significant war memorial projects – the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and the major New Zealand memorial in Canberra. Now we are at an advanced stage of the planning for the New Zealand Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, London. It will commemorate the bonds between New Zealand and the United Kingdom and the contribution and sacrifice made by New Zealand alongside Britain in times of war.
As well, this year we are erecting a New Zealand Memorial at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Pusan. This memorial will recognise the sacrifice and the contribution made by New Zealanders who served with the UN forces in Korea in the 1950s.
In recent months, government officials have been meeting with representatives of the R.S.A. and the Ex-Vietnam Services Association to resolve outstanding issues arising from the exposure of New Zealand defence personnel to Agent Orange and other defoliant chemicals during the Vietnam War.
Following a select committee inquiry and report, our government announced in December 2004 that we accepted the select committee’s conclusion that veterans were exposed to a toxic environment during their service in Vietnam. This was a major step forward. We also offered a formal apology to Vietnam veterans for the failure of previous governments to recognise that the veterans were exposed to that toxic environment.
I am advised that the working group has now agreed that the government should appoint an independent chair to the group. From the names considered acceptable by the working group, the government has agreed to the appointment of former State Services Commissioner, Michael Wintringham to be the Chair.
The chair and the group will oversee a consultation with Vietnam veterans to hear issues, and suggestions for the resolution of them, and to ensure that veterans are receiving their health care, medal, and other entitlements.
It was agreed that after the consultation process, it would be appropriate to have me as Prime Minister, offer the formal apology the government has already agreed to, acknowledging that veterans were exposed to a toxic environment in Vietnam. The forum and venue for that would be determined in consultation with the working group.
There remains still a great deal of hurt and resentment among Vietnam veterans about how their service has been regarded, both immediately after, and in the years since, their involvement in the Vietnam War. That sense of grievance was heightened by successive governments’ failure to acknowledge that veterans were exposed to toxic chemicals. The working group process aims to settle these issues.
I have two announcements to make today with respect to medals.
First, the Malaysian Government wishes to award its Pungat Jasa Malaysian Medal to New Zealanders who served in Malaya/Malaysia, for a defined period of days, between 31 August 1957 and 31 December 1966, including service in Singapore up to 9 August 1965. The medal would also be able to be claimed by the next of kin of deceased service persons.
I have agreed that New Zealand veterans should be able to accept the medal and be able to wear it without restriction, and that I will seek Her Majesty the Queen's approval for this course of action. This will provide medallic recognition to hundreds of ex-service personnel who currently have no medals for their service in Malaya, Borneo, and Singapore between 1960 and 1966.
Second, in 2000, Parliament passed The Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act, which pardoned five soldiers executed during that war for mutiny or desertion. The purpose of the Act was to remove, so far as practicable, the dishonour that the execution of those five soldiers brought to them and their families.
Those soldiers are now eligible for various war medals, certificates, and medallions. The government will be holding formal presentation ceremonies for next of kin to receive this recognition on behalf of the deceased.
Before concluding, I wish to note important government decisions in a number of areas of interest to the RSA.
In April I announced that the government accepted the evidence compiled by the consultative group which looked at the need for the mandatory drivers licence test for people eighty years old and older. We agree that the mandatory test should go – and it will under our Labour Government.
Asset testing on older people in care is being phased out, beginning on 1 July with a huge increase in the exemption from asset testing. The first $150,000 of assets is now exempt, and that will rise by $10,000 each year.
Major programmes are underway to increase substantially the numbers of orthopaedic and cataract operations done every year. The numbers of orthopaedic operations are doubling over four years, and the numbers of cataract operations are increasing fifty per cent over three years. This will bring relief to many older New Zealanders.
Huge improvements are being made to the rates rebate scheme next year under our Labour Government. Up to 300,000 households will be eligible, and the rebate will increase from $200 to $500 per annum. A single superannuitant on $16,645 a year will get the full rebate of $500 if their rates are over $1,000.
Our government has been prepared to invest heavily in basic services like health and education, in support and services for older New Zealanders and families, in infrastructure like transport, and in security through the police and the defence force.
These areas, and a growing economy and job creation are our top priority. We are not prepared to lash out with across the board tax cuts which would throw New Zealand back into debt, increase mortgage rates, and cut important public services. Defence suffered along with other essential areas like health, education, and superannuation when previous governments ran New Zealand that way, and I trust that New Zealanders will not vote for a return to past failures.
Thank you once again for the opportunity to address this annual conference. I wish all delegates a productive and rewarding meeting.