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Don Brash Speech to the 90th Royal NZ RSA

Don Brash Speech to the 90th Royal NZ Returned & Services Association National Council meeting

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, 4pm

It gives me great pleasure to be here today to address the 90th Royal New Zealand Returned & Services Association National Council meeting. I thank your National President, Mr John Campbell, and your National Executive for inviting me to speak on such an important anniversary.

It’s also an honour to be part of your conference in the Year of the Veteran, a year when we remember the valour and courage of those who fought to preserve our way of life, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Last week’s pageant was a wonderful event, and tomorrow I leave for London to attend the dedication of the New Zealand Memorial in Hyde Park on Armistice Day.

This year is also the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. At 6.20 in the morning on the 15th of September 1916, the first New Zealand soldiers went over the top on the Somme. By the end of that terrible day, 1200 were wounded or missing. 600 were dead. By the end of that bloody battle the following month, 40 percent of the New Zealand Division had been wounded, and 2000 New Zealanders lay dead.

It’s almost certain that the remains of the Unknown Soldier, interred two years ago, are those of a New Zealand soldier killed on the Somme in 1916.

This is also a good opportunity to acknowledge and honour those who are currently serving our nation with distinction. As I speak, 470 New Zealand Defence Force personnel are deployed in some of the world’s most hostile environments – in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Lebanon and Sudan, as well as several other less than stable locations around the world.

Today is a great opportunity to wish them well and hope for their safe return, and to acknowledge the strain such deployments place on service personnel and their families.

It is therefore a privilege to be here to honour those who have given service to our nation, and to honour the work of the Returned Services Association in this anniversary year both of the Association itself and of one of the greatest military sacrifices made by New Zealanders.

I’m very conscious that the Returned Services Association makes a substantial and valuable contribution to the discussion on defence policy in this country. It’s an important function of the organisation, and I hope that it may long continue. The knowledge and experience that’s brought to this debate by the RSA is unparalleled.

I also want to congratulate you on the support and commitment you show to the New Zealand community. The welfare services provided by the RSA, as well as the social and charity functions played by local branches in the community, are vitally important to the well-being of many New Zealanders. The work done by the RSA in defending the rights and improving the welfare of New Zealand’s veterans is particularly vital and deeply appreciated.

National recognises the special status of war veterans and the ongoing impact that service in a war or emergency has on their lives and those of their families. We are committed not only to recognising this status in law but also to initiatives which will honour the contribution of those who are prepared to serve their country loyally in times of conflict when called upon.

With these principles in mind, we developed our Veterans’ Affairs policy for the 2005 election.

Central to our policy was a proposed Veteran’s Gold Card, which would have provided a range of benefits for eligible veterans, including priority access to hospital services and access to Housing New Zealand accommodation.

We proposed the establishment of a Veterans Advisory Board. The board would’ve played a vital role providing independent advice to the Minister of Veterans’ Affairs on issues of concern to the veteran community. It would’ve provided a formal process through which organisations like the RSA could ensure their messages on behalf of veterans were heard.

National also committed to a full review of Veterans’ Affairs New Zealand (VANZ) to see if it would be 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 were both at the level required for the well-being of veterans.

We proposed a full revamp and simplification of the system of Veterans’ Pensions. As I told the National Council last year, the fact that 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 Work and Income can have a decision within four weeks, is a scandal.

National also promised to look at all cases where there has not been medallic recognition for service but should have been. This is a simple way for us to ensure that those who serve their country receive some small token of thanks from New Zealand. National wants to make sure that New Zealand expresses its thanks in a tangible way.

National also continues to recognise the importance of maintaining residential homes for veterans and war widows. Last year I told you that if National was elected, we intended to ensure that the Monticello Veterans home was saved. I understand now that the RSA is currently looking for around $600,000 per annum to maintain three facilities for veterans. I believe this should be a priority for the Government.

Urgent action also needs to be taken in regard to Vietnam veterans, and the ongoing toll that the use of Agent Orange in that war has taken on those men and their families. I promised you last year that if National won the election we would start by extending to these veterans a full and unequivocal apology for their treatment by successive Governments over the last three decades.

But these men and their families need more than that. They need regular medical checks and enhanced medical care for children suffering from Agent Orange-related illness. They need a Government that will commit to an ongoing review of 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.

National’s Veterans’ Affairs spokeswoman, Judith Collins, has worked hard, both on the Health Select Committee and with veterans’ groups, to make sure that the effects of these years of injustice for those who served in Vietnam are recognised. We’ll continue to fight to ensure Vietnam veterans and their families receive the recognition, treatment and support they deserve.

As you all know, the Government set up the Joint Working Group with representatives of the RSA and the EVSA, under the chairmanship of Michael Wintringham, to recommend what the Government’s response should be to the Health Select Committee’s report into the use of Agent Orange. The Wintringham Report reached the Government in April. At the time, Minister Rick Barker told Parliament, in response to a question from Judith Collins, that the report would be released in full and without alteration. More than six months later, that promise has not been honoured.

In July, Judith Collins wrote to the Minister and suggested that the National Party should be involved in any Government response to the Wintringham Report. That offer was made in an attempt to ensure that the best outcome was achieved for veterans and their families. Unfortunately, that offer of a bi-partisan approach was declined by the Government.

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.

In particular, the Wintringham Report is understood to have called for the total rejection of both the Reeves and the McLeod Reports, which of course have now been completely discredited. These reports still remain part of the official record, and their retention as such remains a lingering source of anger for Vietnam veterans and their families.

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

An important measure of any nation is the way in which they ensure the well-being of those who’ve made sacrifices and served their country. National’s committed to doing that.

It’s the least any decent Government should do.

Of course, the other area in which the RSA has an interest is the security of New Zealand. National, through spokesman Murray McCully, has been outlining the thinking behind the development of our defence policy for the next election.

We’ve been clear that we see scope for a closer defence relationship with Australia, with greater levels of interoperability between our forces, as the starting point for a solid security policy for New Zealand.

This will, of course, require some changes. National’s well aware that one area of change will be around the resources that New Zealand currently commits to defence.

The most pressing need right now is personnel. New Zealand, like Australia, is currently experiencing quite significant shortages of skilled people in the Defence Force. The recently released New Zealand Defence Force annual report makes for worrying reading; it points to major shortages of personnel across all our services.

Clearly, this is an area that requires new thinking. We need innovative ideas to encourage young people to choose a career in the Defence Force. For that reason National will be watching with considerable interest the idea of a “gap year” in the services for school leavers recently announced by Australian Defence Minister Brendan Nelson.

The other area we need to focus our efforts on is the whole area of counter-terrorism.

Even if you take the relatively relaxed view that New Zealand is unlikely to be a target for terrorist activity, the fact that we have such an open border with Australia – where there’s already been clear evidence of terrorist interest – suggests that we should take this matter very seriously.

In 2002, New Zealand passed the Terrorism Suppression Act, providing government with extensive powers to deal with individuals associated with designated terrorist entities.

Since that time, New Zealand has fulfilled its obligation to designate the 450 or so Al-Qaeda and Taleban-related terrorist entities on the United Nations Security Council list under UN resolution 1267. However, New Zealand has yet to designate a single terrorist entity under UN resolution 1373 in order that the authorities might have access to the powers in the Act.

At the same time, Australia has designated 88 terrorist entities including Hamas, Hizbollah, and the Tamil Tigers; and Canada, at last check, had designated over 50.

My own starting point in these matters, given our open border with Australia, is that we should be operating off something close to the same page as Australia in relation to counter-terrorism.

The fact that we have taken such a dramatically different approach in this area causes me great concern.

It is scarcely confidence-enhancing that when Murray McCully asked why New Zealand had not designated at least the entities on the Australian list, he received the response that New Zealand had already designated the 88 terrorist entities on the Australian list.

We have not.

The fact that those in charge of this area don’t appear to understand this, and accordingly the Prime Minister hasn’t acted in this matter, leads me to the conclusion that the Government is currently falling well short of its obligations to the New Zealand public in this important area.

Ladies and gentlemen, National is committed to ensuring that New Zealand’s veterans receive the recognition and support they deserve for the sacrifices they have made in the service of this country. Similarly, in defence, National is determined to continue to provide New Zealanders with the solid security that our veterans guaranteed to previous generations.

I wish you all the best for your 90th anniversary meeting, and for the rest of 2006, the Year of The Veteran.

Ends

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