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Collins: RSA National Council

Judith Collins MP
National Party Veterans Affairs Spokeswoman

8 November 2006

Speech to 90th Royal New Zealand Returned & Services Association National Council meeting

Michael Fowler Centre, 10.30am

It is a significant honour to address you at the time of the 90th Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association National Council meeting and I would like to thank your National President, Mr John Campbell and the National Executive for this opportunity.

You have yesterday heard from the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Don Brash. I will not repeat Dr Brash’s speech but there will be matters that I wish to reiterate as these are so important to veterans and their families.

What I do want to stress today is that veterans and their families deserve to be treated better than as political footballs to be paraded by governments as evidence of their largesse, to be told they should be grateful for simply being treated with the respect that is their due, and quietly ignored when they no longer have the attention of the Opposition and the media.

I have previously called on the Government to have a multiparty approach to the needs of Vietnam veterans and their families, and I renew that call today.

As many of you will know, I first became politically involved with veterans and their families when, as a new MP and the National Party’s then Associate Health spokeswoman, I was given a US Army map which showed that the Phuoc Tuy province, in which the ANZAC troops were stationed at Nui Dat, was located in an area of significant vegetation clearance. In other words, the area was sprayed with Agent Orange and other defoliant chemicals.

The fact that we now have official recognition of the fact that Agent Orange and other defoliants were used in the ANZAC area of operations is down to a series of events, but they started with John Masters locating the old US Army map, and getting the map to me with the help of Ross Miller.

In order to obtain a select committee inquiry into Agent Orange and its effects on our service personnel in Vietnam and subsequently on their families, it was necessary to first obtain sufficient votes in the health select committee. That was obtained by working with the Greens, ACT, United Future and NZ First so that we controlled the outcome. To give the Labour members of the select committee their dues, once we had the numbers, I believe that all members worked hard and conscientiously to bring about a just result. In that, we were greatly assisted by the committee’s advisor, Dr Peter Smith, who had fulfilled a similar role in Australia.

Particular thanks go to Victor Johnson of Hamilton and John Moller of Kawerau. As Vietnam veterans they kept battling on in search of the truth in the 1980s and 1990s. I would also like to acknowledge the work of the former MP for Napier, Geoff Braybrooke. Geoff undertook a lone battle in Parliament during those early years and was one of the first to offer me support. John Masters and Ross Miller provided sound advice and counsel. Brigadier Rick Ottaway and their staff along with Ray Seymour produced the evidence. And to the Veterans and their families who took part, thank you for telling us what happened. Thank you for telling us how you were treated when you came back to a country that blamed you for an unpopular war.

Thank you for sharing your experiences and those of your children. Thank you for your faith in us and thank you for serving your country – even when, at times, your country did not appreciate you and frankly didn’t deserve you.

Your service was in the finest traditions of ANZAC. Your professionalism was unquestioned. When you returned to New Zealand, you had the right to expect you would be honoured and looked after by your country. And you weren’t. Instead you were ignored. You were lied to. Whether that lie was deliberate or simply the result of gross negligence doesn’t really matter. It did matter that the official reports ignored the fact of Agent Orange, its presence, its effect on you and your children.

I am dismayed that the agency that should have been the first to champion the cause of these veterans, Veterans Affairs New Zealand, consistently disappointed in this regard and continued to maintain confidence in the McLeod Report it had commissioned and which had been accepted and which was released by Minister George Hawkins. That misplaced confidence in the McLeod Report by Veterans Affairs continued to be expressed well after the report was proven to be based on factual untruths.

In essence the inquiry repudiated the Reeves Report of 1999 and the McLeod Report of 2001.

Of significant concern was to find out that the Ministry of Defence had for years had evidence of the extent of defoliate spraying.

It was only when Retired Colonel Ray Seymour conducted an investigation into the spraying of defoliants that the HERBS tapes were decoded and revealed that New Zealand troops serving in the Vietnam War came into contact with the defoliants Agent Orange, Agent White or Agent Blue at least 350 times. It is an appalling shame that neither of the previous inquiries sought out that information which was contained in a file at the ministry and it appeared that it had never previously been accessed.

The Government’s response to the health select committee’s inquiry was disappointing. What was offered was what I described at the time as a limp-wristed apology for the failure of past governments. Changes were promised to streamline the delivery of war pensions, and that was about all. It was so disappointing that 740 veterans and their families wrote an open letter about it.

The RSA and the EVSA made their thoughts known and that has led to the Joint Working Group Inquiry which included representatives of both veterans’ groups and the former head of the State Services Commission, Michael Wintringham. The Joint Working Group asked for submissions in October last year.

That report was delivered to the current government early this year. At the time, the Minister of Veterans Affairs promised Parliament that the report would be released unedited. Veterans are still waiting. Unlike the select committee inquiry, the submissions have been sealed for 30 years.

In July this year, I wrote to the Minister of Veterans Affairs and sought a multiparty approach to a compensation package for veterans and their families. The offer was declined.

I want to remake that call, loud and clear.

Vietnam veterans only started to get any decent acknowledgment when party politics was put aside on the health select committee and the truth was finally able to be heard.

The National Party has not seen the Wintringham report. We have simply been advised that it makes certain recommendations. We understand that the recommendations of the Wintringham Report include recommendations that compensation be paid to those veterans who were adversely affected by Agent Orange, that tax paid by personnel serving in Vietnam be refunded, that there be genetic testing of veterans’ children, and that there be an official Government apology to those veterans affected – in place of the half-hearted response following the release of the health select committee’s report.

The Wintringham Report is understood to have called for the total rejection of both the Reeves and the McLeod reports. These reports remain part of the official record, and their retention is a lingering source of anger for Vietnam veterans and their families. They should both be removed forthwith.

The National Party is supportive of recommendations along those lines, and remains open to a cross-party approach.

I am deeply concerned that two years after the report of the health select committee inquiry, and more than a year after the commencement of the Wintringham inquiry, there is no resolution. Let me make this clear. You should not settle for less than your due. Because we have been locked out of the decision-making process, we can do no more than to support you. I am concerned that that is simply not enough.

I reiterate that our request for a multiparty approach to resolution for our Vietnam veterans remains firm and is genuinely meant. It was only when the health select committee took a multiparty approach to this issue that 30 years of lies were able to be cut through.

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Royal New Zealand Returned & Services Association for the sterling work that you do. You support our veterans, you honour our veterans, and you behave in a non-political way to get the best that you can for veterans and their families. It is you who keep alive our traditions of ANZAC Day and Armistice Day.

This coming weekend, Dr Don Brash will be in London to attend the dedication of the New Zealand Memorial in Hyde Park on Armistice Day. We believe that ceremonies like this are important. They are not only important for veterans but they are incredibly important for our country and our Kiwi culture.

On Armistice Day, I will be at the Papakura RSA where we have a parade and I will present certificates of appreciation from the people of New Zealand to veterans.

This is the Year of the Veteran and I would like, on behalf of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, to thank you for the way that you have insisted that the Year of the Veteran not become a political event. I am the daughter of a Veteran. I am proud to be such.

I would like to now turn to the 10-point Veterans Welfare Manifesto that the RSA produced last year. When reviewing these, I can see little that we would, in government, have any issue with. Our policy initiatives are:

1. To establish a Veterans’ Advisory Board to provide independent advice to the Minister on issues of concern to the veteran community;

2. Legislate for the introduction of a veterans Gold Card to provide a range of benefits where there is an established need including priority access to Housing New Zealand accommodation, priority access to hospital services such as surgical treatment and other services.

3. Review the operation of Veterans Affairs New Zealand and to include an investigation of its resourcing. We do not believe that the roles of Secretary of War Pensions and the Director of Veterans Affairs should be held by the same person.

4. We will revamp and simplify veterans’ pensions. We see no reason why a veteran should wait on average six months for a pension when a sickness beneficiary waits a matter of days.

5. We will work with the Royal New Zealand RSA to review and redress situations where medallic recognition has not been forthcoming.

6. We will commit to address the legitimate grievances of our Vietnam veterans and;

7. We will work with and give support to the management of the three remaining War Veterans’ homes to ensure they continue to meet the needs of the veteran community.

While we are speaking of medallic recognition, I would like to congratulate the RSA for honouring Nancy Wake with the Badge in Gold earlier this year. I do not understand why civilian honours are so often kept from people who have served us so outstandingly in wartime.

I believe that Nancy Wake is a worthy recipient of the Order of New Zealand and I intend to continue to press for this honour for her. Ladies and gentlemen, the Royal New Zealand Returned & Services Association has stood by its members for 90 years. I wish you all the best for your anniversary, for the balance of the Year of the Veteran, and for the future. Thank you.

ENDS

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