RSA DOMINION COUNCIL CONFERENCE

  • Paul East
Defence

MICHAEL FOWLER CENTRE
WELLINGTON

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you for once again inviting me to address your annual Dominion conference.

Thank you also for inviting me to the opening ceremony yesterday which I also enjoyed. I took particular note of the address given by your President and I must say that I wholeheartedly concur with his view that our national flag should be flying at every opportunity.

As he spoke I was reminded of the campaign undertaken some fifteen years ago by the former Minister of Education, Merv Wellington, who sought to have every school erect a flagpole and fly a flag each day. At that time there was a good deal of criticism directed at him, although I am sure he had the support of the Returned Services Association.

It seems to me that there has been a change in public mood in New Zealand as evidenced by the growing numbers of young people attending ANZAC Day parades and demonstrating in other ways their patriotism. Perhaps the time is now ripe to reconsider this matter and perhaps without compulsion all schools should be encouraged to honour the flag.

When I spoke to you last year, I had only held the portfolios of Defence and War Pensions for about three months and was just coming to grips with many of the relevant issues. I was also a member of the National Government heading into our first MMP election. A lot seems to have happened since then.

Now, a year and three months on, having survived the election, I am a member of the first MMP coalition Government and I am very pleased to have retained responsibility for Defence and War Pensions.

If you believed everything the media told you, you might think that the Government had achieved very little of substance and was preoccupied with political side shows. Let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth.

Those of us who have the privilege to serve as Cabinet Ministers know that there is a great deal of cooperation and good will between coalition partners; that many important decisions have been taken in the first half of this year and a number of these will be announced in the budget.

The public have called for sound, progressive economic policies that reduce unemployment, and maintain low inflation and high rates of growth. They also want more compassionate social policies especially in health and education. That is exactly what this Government will continue to deliver. This will become much more apparent to New Zealanders when the budget is announced.

A great deal of progress has been made in a number of areas that affect you and I want to outline these today.

As you will be aware, the Government has over the last three or four years tried to redress a number of long-standing grievances relating to medallic recognition. This has included service in Japan at the end of World War II and in Malaya between 1960 and 1964. As well, a medal for service in Korea between 1954 and 1957 is also under active consideration.

Decisions on the entitlements to these medals have proved to be somewhat contentious and indeed anything to do with medals seems to stir an emotive debate. In this regard I am not surprised by the recent comment by a British author that "more enmity sometimes exists between holders and non-holders than did between the protagonists in the conflict." While this comment may be rather tongue-in-check, you should appreciate that it is extremely difficult 30 to 50 years after an event to make fair decisions on medal entitlements.

In New Zealand, and indeed in the British Commonwealth, the customary approach to medals has been a conservative one which seeks to underpin the value of awards - rather than a more liberal one which can devalue the worth of awards. This seems to me to have been a sound approach which has withstood the test of time.

I believe that if we seek to overly liberalise the approach to retrospective awards, we call into question the judgements of those who made the decisions in terms of their own times, not in terms of our later times.

This doesn't mean the Government intends to ignore past grievances - where mistakes were made they should be rectified. As such, the Government has adopted a very careful and indeed conservative approach to retrospective medallic recognition. In general, this means that the Government will try and resolve grievances in a way which will have as little effect as possible on awards that have already been made for that campaign.

This approach was at the heart of the recent decision regarding the eligibility criteria for the award of the New Zealand General Service medal for Malaya 1960-64. I may say that I received considerable correspondence from both ends of the spectrum on this issue.

What we were trying to do was to redress a long-standing grievance that some New Zealand personnel, who served on operations in Malaya, had not received any medallic recognition for that service. The aim was not, therefore, to create an additional entitlement for those who had already received a medal for serving in Malaya. In this way we saw the NZGSM "Malaya 1960-64" complementing the two Commonwealth-wide awards, and thus keeping a balance between redressing the grievance and the need to take into account decisions on medals made at the time.

As a final comment on medals, and perhaps in keeping with my previous comments, I am aware of a strong view among RSA members that there is a need for an award which recognises service to New Zealand since the end of World War II. In the past our conservative approach has meant there has been a reluctance to consider such an award because in most instances that service has already been recognised by the award of Commonwealth-wide campaign medals, instituted by the Queen as our Head of State.

For any change in this position there would need to be some more compelling arguments put forward, than one that the New Zealand Government has not recognised this service in the name of New Zealand. As well, there would need to be very clear entitlement provisions. The medal would, for example, have to be limited to operational service, rather than simply a medal for going overseas.

While I am not suggesting the Government's position has, at this stage anyway, changed, I agree that a detailed proposal from the RSA on this issue would be worthwhile so we can look at it more closely.

As your Minister of Defence, I must again reiterate how surprised I am about the amount of mail that I receive on the question of medals. There seems to be no end to the circumstances which New Zealanders feel entitle them to medallic recognition. One of the more extreme arriving in the mail recently was a request from an individual who was firmly of the view that he was entitled to medallic recognition because, as a young boy, he had sailed to New Zealand as a civilian in a merchant ship shortly after the war had concluded. In his view the risk of an unexploded mine was all that was needed to receive such an award.

Last year I indicated to you that the New Zealand Defence Force and Income Support had drafted a set of criteria against which future operations could be classified for war pensions. I also noted that this may provide a way of reviewing past operations, such as Malaya and Borneo, which do not currently have full war pension coverage.

I regret that we have not made as much progress in this area as I had originally anticipated. While I believe that the criteria approach is generally sound, I have a number of reservations; firstly about retrospective decisions and secondly regarding the circumstances of some disabilities.

If Section 80A coverage was provided, then all disabilities would be assumed to be duty related and thus covered. I have doubts whether the taxpayer would agree with providing war pension compensation for injuries when the person concerned received those injuries from an accident unrelated to service.

I appreciate that there is an argument that the Government put the Service member in the overseas location where the injury occurred, and that there is a fine and very difficult line between duty and non-duty injuries, particularly in an operational environment.

I also believe the War Pensions Act is well out of date and is in need of a comprehensive review. The Government has now agreed to this review, but I should emphasise it will not affect any current entitlements under the Act. Rather it is intended to review the Act to make sure that it provides more appropriate coverage for the current and future operational needs of the NZDF, rather than being effectively based on a World War II environment.

This approach, however, will not help us resolve war pension entitlements to past operational service. As a way of progressing these issues to a fair conclusion I have agreed in principle to the eligibility criteria I outlined last year, and have asked the New Zealand Defence Force and Income Support war pension staff to make recommendations to me on past operations using this criteria. While I should repeat my comment of last year that I do not want to unnecessarily raise hopes, I will do my best to resolve the situation.

On 20 May 1996 the Government agreed to amend the War Pensions Regulations to allow officers who were awarded decorations for bravery and who were receiving a war disablement pension to receive payment of a gallantry award. I am pleased to announce today that the Government has approved an ex-gratia payment to all officers who currently qualify for the payment of a gallantry award.

The payment will be equivalent to the amount of gallantry award that would be payable from 20 October 1994, the date of lodgement of Mr George O'Leary's petition to Parliament, to 19 May 1996.

112 Officers have been granted payment of a Gallantry Award as a result of the change on 20 May 1996. Income Support will be arranging for the ex-gratia payment to those pensioners to be made in the very near future.

Another initiative in the War Pensions area has been the review of all those people who receive a pension for hearing loss.

All pensioners whose last review of their hearing pension was before 1 February 1993 were invited to have their hearing loss pension reviewed. Those who accepted this invitation were sent to specialists to be examined. Any reported increase in hearing loss was considered by the War Pensions Claims Panels when assessing the pension payable for hearing loss.

Unfortunately due to the unavailability of ENT specialists in some areas of the country not all hearing loss pensioners have had their files reviewed. The small number of pensioners that this affects will not be financially disadvantaged by any delays in reviewing their case.

Members of the RSA have for many years lobbied Ministers in Charge of War Pensions to increase the war pension paid for total deafness to 100% - in line with ACC and other audiological assessors. As part of the changes to hearing pensions the Government approved a change in the maximum pension payable for total deafness from 85% to 100% effective from 9 April 1997. This change resulted in 6412 pensioners receiving an increase in their pensions on pay-day 15 April 1997.

Another hearing relating issue that the War Pensions administration is currently investigating is the possibility of obtaining hearing aids and related appliances at wholesale costs.

A pilot scheme is currently being run to evaluate the efficiencies that can be achieved by purchasing aids at wholesale costs. One benefit could be that War Pensions would be able to help pensioners purchase hearing aids with higher specifications, within the present set maximum of $750 per aid.

As I hope you will appreciate there is a lot going on in the War Pensions area. It is the same with Defence. At the moment the focus of everyone's attention is the Defence Assessment. This was commissioned by the Government and is expected to come up with a number of capability and funding options for the New Zealand Defence Force. The focus will be on the sustainability of our defence effort over the longer haul.

I want to emphasise that the Government is committed to maintaining a skilled, professional and well-equipped Defence Force. We recognise that defence funding has reached a cross roads and the need for further funding has been flagged in the Coalition Agreement.

No Government however has an open cheque book. Defence expenditure decisions will naturally be taken in the context not only of the Defence outcomes we seek to achieve, but also the Government's overall priorities.

And just because the Defence Assessment has been initiated that doesn't mean defence business has come to a grinding halt. New equipment is being bought; we continue to send forces on United Nations operations worldwide; and we exercise regularly with our friends and allies in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere. Despite the pressures, we have not put up the shutters.

A number of major capital equipment purchases have been made in the last 12 months These includes new self protection equipment for the Hercules transport aeroplanes ($18.5 million), new anti aircraft missiles for the Army ($22.5 million), new night observation and remote sensing devices for the Army ($18.5 million), new helicopters for the Navy ($274 million), a replacement survey ship for the Navy ($32 million), new medium recovery vehicles for the Army ($3.3 million), new cranes for the navy dockyard ($5.5 million). The Anzac frigate budget for this financial year is $177 million - adding all those up we reach a reasonably substantial figure of approximately 550 million dollars.

Moreover, the frigate project will bring at least 800 million dollars worth of work to our industry, of which about 490 million dollars has been contracted so far to more than 400 companies spread throughout New Zealand.

Further work is being undertaken on the Defence Assessment. I expect this process to take some time as the Government carefully weighs up the various options. These are important decisions that can't be rushed.

Defence issues since the DA was announced, have enjoyed a higher profile than normal. I welcome this debate. It is my personal view that the younger generation is gaining a greater appreciation of New Zealand's place in the world. They appear to have a growing awareness of the role of strong defence forces in protecting our vital interests. I'm sure the Returned Services Association will continue to play a leading role in keeping these matters before the people.

Rest assured that the New Zealand Defence Force is following the traditions of professionalism and integrity established by men and women such as yourselves. They are highly professional people who are respected internationally and of whom we should be proud. Despite having gone through a lot of cost cutting over the years they continue to fulfil the role defined for them in the 1991 White Paper and that is: to protect New Zealand's sovereignty; to protect our interests overseas, primarily in the Asia Pacific region; and to make an appropriate contribution to international security so that we are seen to be a good international citizen.

I am also of the view that there is now more support in Parliament for strengthening our Defence Forces than there has been in earlier times. The National Party and the New Zealand First Party in the Coalition Agreement have clearly stated a commitment to a well-trained modern professional Defence Force. ACT has made a number of statements since the election that demonstrated that it is prepared to give a higher priority to Defence. I am also heartened by the attitudes of a number of members of the Labour Party who I am sure will be prepared to resist any isolationist policies that may be promoted in that quarter.

While it is fair to say that in Defence, there is more that we can do, it should be remembered that there is much that is being achieved. At any one time for example you may hear of a frigate patrolling the North Arabian Gulf, you may hear of the seven officers still working in Bosnia, one of whom is commanding one of the UN missions there - you may hear of the team directly supporting the UN special commission on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, - or of the 15 others who are in Angola - others in Cambodia - another 25 still in the Sinai - or the others scattered through Israel, Lebanon and Syria helping to keep the peace (no easy task in that part of the world). At the same time there will be a frigate and tanker, together with 8 Skyhawks and a n Orion exercising in the South China sea; three ships surveying the coast; a Hercules exercising in Canada with other Commonwealth countries, land exercises continuing in New Zealand and in the Pacific. We must not lose sight of the tremendous effort that is continuously being expended.

The Government knows that the Defence decisions it makes over the coming months are crucial to the continued sustainability and high performance of our Defence effort as we head into the next century. We intend to take our time over those decisions and make sure we make the right ones so that future generations of New Zealanders can continue to reap the benefits of a secure and stable country and region.

Thank you