An Open reply from George & Damien Nepata to Min of Defence
On Thursday 12 December, the Minister of Defence announced that further compensation or an ex-gratia payment would not be made to my brother George & me. While we are still awaiting the Ministers written decision, and given the timing of the release trying not to be cynical about the Ministers decision, we felt that his recent comments at a press meeting should not go publicly unanswered.
Before that reply though I want to acknowledge the support George and I have had from across the political spectrum, veteran support groups and organisations as well as from ordinary kiwis who have written, posted on line and contacted us personally. Aside from a couple of examples to follow, there are many, many more instances of systemic failure in our treatment. Your messages have validated for us that what we did was the right thing and confirmed for us that yes, we were treated badly and we deserved better. Thank you.
Despite the Minister stating that the latest report lacked analysis and depth, the basis for our claim was covered extensively in both of the Foreign Affairs, Defence & Trade Select committee reports of 1999 & 2003. It was only briefly covered again in the Maori Affairs select committee in May of this year. Nevertheless, the analysis and depth was certainly there if the Minister wanted to see it. Both the Labour led committees and the National led Maori Affairs committee unanimously recommended an ex-gratia payment noting serious short fallings by Defence in health & safety in Georges case and the inadequacy of Accident Compensation payments in both our cases. The reasoning for the recommendation was covered in depth in the 2003 report.
The Minister also commented; “While I have huge sympathy for the brothers who were tragically injured in two separate incidents, it is clear there have been no substantive changes to their case since Cabinet considered the issue ten years ago." I am not certain what the Minister means by substantive changes to our case. If it is legislative change, then he and his political party are the people in the position to make the required changes, that would enable a compensation payment or ex gratia payment, not George & I. If it is changes to our personal circumstance, would being paupers living rough on the streets have swayed his opinion? Has continuing to live our lives as best we can, rebuilding them from the ground up been a disadvantage for us in respect of his decision to go against two select committee recommendations?
The Minister also said that it was not possible to “distinguish between the Nepata brothers' situation and numerous others who had been injured in military service”. If the Minister is unsure of how many kiwis are out there that may emerge from the shadows I will tell him, 33. The NZDF representatives reported that number to the Maori Affairs select committee. If the Minister is worried about a floodgate being opened, 33 are hardly that. However, does the number really matter? Is he actually saying that because so many people have been injured in the service of their country, and not adequately compensated or supported through that, we cannot afford to compensate these two brothers because of the likelihood we will need to compensate others? Surely if there is basis for compensation whether it is legal, ethical or moral, it should be addressed no matter what the cost. Had The Minister chosen to do the right thing, and ensure adequate compensation, the cost as it stands for George and I would have been equivalent to, and quite possibly significantly less than, the purchase of two ministerial limousines.
The impression was also given by the Minister that we had been compensated through the Government Superannuation Fund (GSF) and had also received full Defence Force benefits. The GSF was a retirement scheme, not a compensation scheme. Money that we received from that scheme was a refund of contributions we had paid into it, albeit the sum included employer contributions. As far as Defence Force benefits go, all George and I are entitled to is access to Army leave centres. Hardly compensation for losing the use of your legs or of being burnt over 40% of the body down to within millimetres of the bone.
Finally, some of the basis the Minister used to justify his decision was that there was risk of setting precedence and that we had been adequately compensated through ACC. With regard to precedence, the 2003 report made it quite clear that there was no intention to create precedence and indeed one had already been set by previous ex gratia payments to other Defence personnel and civilians that had petitioned parliament in a similar manner. There was no risk in that regard of setting precedent. As for adequacy of compensation, what I would ask the Minister is this. What compensation would he expect if he were to lose the use of his legs, arms and hands, to be paralysed from the chest down, to spend 18 months in hospital and to then have to pay for his own wheel chair and mobility van at a cost of $20,000 out of his ACC compensation payment of $27, 000.00? If on top of that it were also discovered that his employer was entirely culpable for his injuries, and that to this very day no one has been held accountable for his injury, would he consider that adequate? I suspect not and his decision seems to imply that service to ones country, other than as a politician, is of significantly less value.
The Ministers decision, simply put, reinforces the current belief amongst many service personnel and ordinary kiwis that politicians hold very little regard for the safety and welfare of current and former service personnel. A view realised after many, many years of fighting by various veteran groups against their own governments since the end of the Vietnam War and quite possibly World War 2. In my opinion it is a callous view given they expect these same men and women to deploy to some of the worlds most dangerous regions mostly for political reasons.
Since George and I were discharged from the Army, things have certainly changed. The NZDF is now subject to Health & Safety in Employment legislation, hence the recent prosecutions against them, and should they be medically released, due to an injury sustained on the job, soldiers now receive an additional compensation payment from the NZDF of four times their annual salary. All George & I asked for was to be covered under these latter provisions. We knew, and current serving personnel know, that our job was and still is a difficult and dangerous one. That at any moment their government will call on them to put them in harms way. The quid pro quo to that is that we and they expected that should the worst happen, they will be adequately taken care of through financial compensation, or should they not return home, those benefits passed on to their families.
George & Damien Nepata