Brash Speech To RSA National Council
Don Brash Leader of the National Party Address to: 89th Royal New Zealand Returned & Services Association National Council Michael Fowler Centre Wellington
Ladies and gentlemen, good morning.
It is a wonderful opportunity to speak today at the 89th Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association National Council meeting. I would particularly like to thank your National President, Mr John Campbell, and the National Executive for their kind invitation to do so.
I sincerely hope that the council meeting has been fruitful. Having just been part of the recent National Party conference, I understand how important these events are in bringing the organisation together to focus on the tasks ahead. And also to reflect on what has occurred in the past.
This past year has been one in which the whole nation has proudly reflected on our nation’s military history. The valour and courage of those who fought for their country, and those who made the ultimate sacrifice, have been justifiably honoured in the past 12 months.
Late last year I had the privilege of attending ceremonies dedicated to New Zealand’s Unknown Warrior. A soldier who gave his life for our country was returned home to rest. It was with awe that I witnessed New Zealand’s reaction to this event. New Zealanders both young and old, civilians and defence personnel, those serving and those who have served, all turned out to honour the Unknown Warrior. The whole experience was truly humbling.
This historic event was followed by another with the 90th anniversary of Anzac Day in April. Despite bitterly cold conditions, New Zealanders were out in force at the dawn parades and attended services throughout the day, once again honouring those who had served - many giving their lives.
Today, I am here to honour those who have given service to our nation through association with our armed forces, and also to honour you who continue to give of yourselves through the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association.
The RSA is involved in our communities in so many ways.
I acknowledge the RSA’s substantial contribution to defence policy discussion in New Zealand. The knowledge and experience you have in your organisation is evident in your recent publication, ‘Defending New Zealand’, and I congratulate Robin Klitscher and his team for their work in this area. The commitment to the development of our country’s defence forces is clearly expressed in the report, and something National strongly shares with you. You will see that commitment when we release our own Defence policy in due course.
Most New Zealanders know the RSA through their local RSA club – perhaps heading down there on a Friday to share a drink with friends. They know the RSA when they buy a poppy every Poppy Day – a longstanding Anzac Day tradition.
What many New Zealanders do not know, however, is the power of the work carried out in the community by the RSA welfare arm. They work tirelessly to help veterans and their families. An example of such work is the RSA’s association with the Monticello War Veterans’ Home, which is currently under threat of closure due to a funding shortfall. National’s John Carter and Katherine Rich have both made it clear on another occasion, as indeed I have myself, that National will advance the home $2 million on an interest-free basis to rebuild Monticello, to be returned to the taxpayer when the last veteran has no further use for it. I reiterate that commitment today.
National also commits to working with, and giving support to, all the War Veterans Homes in New Zealand, ensuring that they continue to meet the needs of the veteran community.
National values our veterans. Our Veterans policy, which I am announcing today, contains a series of initiatives reflecting the debt of gratitude that all New Zealanders owe those who have served in our armed forces.
How a government continues to assist veterans through the years is the challenge. National believes that a government’s ability to help veterans is through well-developed and well-informed policy. And the best way to develop and implement informed policy is to ensure that government is getting the best information through the best channels.
To this end, National commits to establishing a process whereby the veteran community can engage formally with the government. We will achieve this through the establishment of a Veterans Advisory Board. This board will provide independent advice to the Minister on issues of concern to the veteran community.
The creation of the board will ensure that the government hears loud and clear what is concerning our veterans. The RSA’s role in conveying this message has in the past been invaluable. National hopes that the creation of this board will allow the RSA to continue with its good work, providing you with a formal vehicle through which your message can be heard.
Efficiency and efficacy in delivering services is also important. And this is as true in delivering services to veterans as it is to delivering them to anybody else. Wasteful bureaucracy in any form, and in any department, is undesirable and unfair to taxpayers. Accessibility of services to those who need it should be as simple an operation as possible. To ensure that this is the case for our veterans, National will commit to a full review of Veterans’ Affairs New Zealand (VANZ), and the veterans’ pension system.
It is important to note that this is not change for change’s sake. VANZ was the vehicle established six years ago to deliver services to veterans. It is time for this vehicle to be given a service, so to speak. We will review VANZ from the top down, to include an assessment as to whether it is appropriate to resource it as a ‘one stop shop’ for the provision of services to veterans, and to ensure that service provision and service delivery are both at the level required for the well-being of veterans. If change is required to ensure this, then it will occur.
The fact that at present a veteran seeking a war disablement pension expects to wait a minimum of four months for a decision, while somebody seeking a sickness benefit from WINZ can have that decided within four weeks, is not good enough. We need to do much better.
A similar ‘service’ will be carried out on the myriad of acts, regulations and amendments that make up the present system of veterans’ pension entitlements. Tidying up the legislation surrounding these entitlements will create a more streamlined pension system, making it easier for veterans to access the benefits they are entitled to.
We will also move to identify areas where medallic recognition has not been accorded for service in our armed forces, but should have been. It is important to recognise the work done by our soldiers, sailors and airmen when they are sent overseas to represent their country – often in dangerous situations. In essence, this act is a small one to commit to, but one that is hugely important. Representing our thanks through the presentation of a medal, and the medal itself, is a token of appreciation from the people of New Zealand, to the soldiers, sailors and airmen who have given that commitment. The National Party wants to make sure that New Zealand expresses its thanks in a tangible way.
There are also other ways in which we can demonstrate our thanks for the commitment and sacrifice that those that have served in our armed forces have made.
For many years, there has been a general lack of awareness and understanding of the ongoing range of physical and psychological problems suffered by veterans as a result of their active service. This has now changed. The government has a duty of care to ensure that the health needs of veterans are addressed.
The RSA has long advocated the introduction of special entitlements for veterans. I am delighted to announce today that, central to our policy, is the introduction of a Veterans’ Gold Card.
The Veterans’ Gold Card will provide a range of benefits where there is established need, including priority access to hospital services, such as surgical treatment, and access to Housing New Zealand accommodation and other services.
Veterans with appropriate qualifying service and who receive New Zealand Superannuation, or are entitled to a war disablement pension, will be eligible for the Veterans’ Gold Card.
In completing the detailed work required to implement this policy, we will be looking to the RSA for your input to ensure we get it right.
A further way of demonstrating our thanks for the commitment and sacrifice by those that have served in our armed forces is by saying ‘sorry’ where there is a need to say sorry. For many years, the Vietnam veteran community lobbied for the government to recognise the health problems caused by their exposure to Agent Orange.
The National Party stands by the commitment we made to the Vietnam veteran community earlier this year.
Specifically, National commits to giving an unqualified apology to Vietnam veterans and their families for the long-delayed recognition of the effects of that exposure.
For too long the concerns of our Vietnam veteran community have been ignored. National’s commitment to changing this began with our demand for a select committee inquiry, spear-headed by National MP Judith Collins, into the effects of Agent Orange on those who served in Vietnam and on their families. We agree with veterans seeking closure on this issue, and National commits to putting in place a series of measures to do this. The time for talking and consultation has passed. Veterans and their families have waited for 30 years. It is time for action.
We commit to free annual medical examinations for Vietnam veterans, to include specific screening for conditions known to be associated with exposure to Agent Orange when requested.
We also want to ensure that, where medical examination shows the presence of a condition caused by exposure to Agent Orange which makes the veteran eligible for a war disablement pension, the application for that pension is processed promptly and efficiently to minimise inconvenience and delays.
Medical care for the children and grandchildren of Vietnam veterans suffering from Agent Orange-related illnesses will also be enhanced. Acknowledgement of the long-term health effects of Agent Orange on the families of Vietnam veterans is an important step in providing some sense of closure for those involved.
When the offspring of Vietnam veterans present with medical conditions known to be related to exposure to Agent Orange, we believe the onus of proof should be reversed in assessing their eligibility for enhanced medical care.
There should be an ongoing review of the international research relating to the effects of exposure to Agent Orange to ensure the established list of Agent-Orange-related illnesses is updated on a regular basis.
Finally, we acknowledge that the Reeves and McLeod reports were totally inadequate in dealing with the issues related to the exposure of Vietnam veterans to Agent Orange, and the effects on their families. In government, the National Party will formally renounce both of these reports as the basis for policy.
Ladies and gentlemen, National’s approach to veterans’ affairs stems from a strongly-held commitment to recognise the special contribution that war veterans have made. Like your motto of ‘People Helping People’, National wants to ensure that we do what we can to help New Zealand’s veterans.
In recognition of your special contribution, and of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the RSA next year, a National Government will declare 2006 the Year of the Veteran, and encourage all New Zealanders to remember and acknowledge the contribution made by our veterans.
President John, as I said earlier … National values our veterans.