Helen Clark Speech To RSA National Council
Rt Hon Helen Clark Prime Minister Address to RSA NATIONAL COUNCIL MEETING at Michael Fowler Centre, WELLINGTON 5.00 pm Monday 6 October 2008.
Thank you for the invitation to speak to the RNZRSA National Council once again.
2008 has seen a number of significant milestones reached within the veteran community - Tribute08, the Crown's apology to Vietnam veterans and their families, and the release of the Law Commission's discussion document on the rewrite of the War Pensions Act.
On 28 May 2008, I delivered a Ministerial Statement in Parliament apologising to Vietnam veterans for the manner in which their loyal service in the name of New Zealand was not recognised as it should have been, when it should have been, and for inadequate support extended to them and their families after their return home from the conflict.
On 30 May Tribute 08 began, as a celebration and "welcome home" organised by veterans, for veterans. Our government was pleased to contribute $1 million to the event, as well as supporting the travel of many veterans to Wellington.
As Prime Minister, I attended the Whakanoa Ceremony and formal welcome home held at Parliament, which was truly a special event. Large numbers of veterans and families attended, along with members of the public.
All present were especially moved by the presence of the family members of those men who never returned, bearing their photos and carrying them into the Legislative Chamber of Parliament where a vigil was mounted to honour their memory.
Overall more than two thousand veterans and family members participated in Tribute 08. Feedback from those who participated has been overwhelmingly positive. Many valued the opportunity to catch up with old friends, share memories, and remember those who did not come home.
Reconciliation was a central theme, making Tribute 08 also a healing experience.
Now our work goes on, guided by the Memorandum of Understanding which the Government signed in December 2006.
A register of Vietnam Veterans has been established, and over 5,400 veterans and family members have registered so far.
The MOU includes the provision for ex-gratia payments for Viet Nam veterans and their families for specific health conditions. To date 72 ex gratia payments totalling $2.545 million have been made.
One of the key features of the package outlined in the MOU is the establishment of the Viet Nam Veterans and their Families Trust. The Trust has the flexibility to provide assistance to Viet Nam veterans and their families who are suffering serious difficulties. The Trust has been set up with $7 million in funding for a thirty-year period, with the interest available for distribution to veterans and their families. To date 102 grants have been made to the value of around $800,000.
As well an Expert Panel is to be established, made up of medical and other experts, to review available international research on the health of Viet Nam veterans on an on-going basis. The panel will be able to make recommendations to Government to include, on the list of prescribed conditions, any further conditions which are believed to be attributable to exposure to a toxic environment during service in Viet Nam.
The Minister of Veterans' Affairs, Rick Barker, will give more details about the work of the Expert Panel when he addresses the conference. I understand that he has been working closely with the RNZRSA President to finalise the details of how the Panel will work, and that good progress has been made.
Another issue of great interest to the RSA is the review of the War Pensions Act.
Our government is committed to ensuring that the care and services provided to veterans are of the highest standard. The legislation which underpins these services needs to be up to date and relevant to veterans' needs.
In the late twentieth and 21st centuries, the nature of military deployments has changed a lot. Personnel can be deployed to multiple environments over the course of their career. And our military and veterans population will become more diverse.
The current War Pensions Act is considered to be out of date, unclear, and in places just plain bad law. The Act has never been systematically looked at or revised over its 54 year life.
The Government decided that there should be an independent review of the War Pensions Act, undertaken by the Law Commission. In July 2008 the Commission released an issues paper for public consultation.
The issues paper discusses the fundamental questions of defining who is a veteran; what link between service and injury should be required before a veteran is entitled to coverage under the Act ; and what the standard of evidence for proving a claim should be.
The Law Commission will consider public submissions in response to the issues paper before it prepares its report to Government on the review. The report will include a redrafted Act, to be written in plain and easily understood language, Veterans need to be able to understand what they will be entitled to, and in what circumstances.
The legislation needs to meet the needs of the older veteran community, as well as the needs of currently serving and future veterans - whose service and injuries are likely to be different from the predominantly physical injuries which the War Pensions Act was originally designed to address.
The closing date for submissions is 28 November 2008. I understand that the Law Commission will be visiting RSA branches in Whangarei, Auckland, Tauranga, Ruatoria, Napier, Wanganui, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch and Dunedin later this month and early in November 2008.
I encourage veterans and their family members to attend these meetings and take the opportunity to ask questions and contribute to the discussion at these meetings.
I would also like to comment on the developments within our armed forces.
As Prime Minister I take pride in the work our men and women in the Defence Force undertake.
In the1990s, defence force personnel numbers dropped by 24 per cent, and spending fell by 30 per cent. All three services were having to use increasingly obsolete equipment.
Our task in government has been to rebuild and modernise the Defence Force.
A ten year $3.3 billion fund was created to meet the capital costs of new equipment as identified in the Long Term Development Plan. To meet extra operating costs and to increase personnel numbers, $4.6 billion was set aside, over ten years.
This investment is now showing significant results, both in personnel numbers and in new equipment.
The number of Defence Force personnel is up by 1100 since 2005 to over 14,000 personnel.
This year the Military Remuneration Review has implemented changes to remuneration which will see wages increase by over ten per cent on average, with higher increases in areas where there are skill shortages. This will help address recruitment and retention problems which, as in the private sector, have emerged with near full employment in our country.
The Defence Force has also been acquiring modern equipment and technology across all the services. NH90 medium utility helicopters have been ordered for the Air Force. Upgrades for the Hercules and P3 Orions are in process. Ohakea is being upgraded. The Army has new Light Armoured Vehicles, new Light Operational Vehicles, new radios, new anti-tank missiles, and much else. The Navy, through Project Protector, gets the seven new ships for inshore, medium range and long range work.
With such a major upgrade programme across all the services, there will always be teething problems. But overall the re-equipment programme is a huge step forward for all three services.
I would now like to mention briefly several other issues of interest to many returned service people.
Many of you are recipients of New Zealand Super and Veteran’s Pensions. Our government has made sure that the tax changes announced in this year's Budget flow through to you.
Accordingly your fortnightly payments of New Zealand Superannuation and the Veteran’s Pension increase from 1 October by $45.88 per fortnight for a couple, and $23.84 for a single person living alone. For those living without significant extra income, this is a help.
Two other items that will be of interest to you also came into effect last week.
From 1 October SuperGold Card holders enjoy free off peak travel on public transport. That means, for example, that super annuitants and veteran's pensioners can travel free all the way from Masterton to Wellington on community rail, or from central Auckland to Waiheke on the ferry.
As well, we have increased the subsidy for hearing aids significantly from 1 Octobers. It's up from $198 to $500.
During my three terms as Prime Minister, I believe a great deal has been done to honour all those who have served in the New Zealand Defence Force and to improve support and services for them. You have my word that in a fourth term we want to carry on this work.
I confirm what the Governor-General has said about the programme of events to mark the 90th anniversary of the armistice which ended WWI. This completes the cycle of 90th anniversaries from WWI – of Gallopli in 2005, the Somme in 2006, Passchendaele 2007. Our planners are now turning their thoughts to the centennial of those momentous and tragic events.
I wish all delegates a good conference, and I thank you and the RSA branches you represent throughout New Zealand for all your support to our veteran's community.