PM speaks to RNZRSA National Council: Gallipoli 2015, War Pensions

Thank you for inviting me to speak to your 2012 National Council. It is a great pleasure to be speaking to you again this year. I would like to thank your national executive committee and president Don McIver. Don has been a tireless advocate for veterans for the last few years. As Prime Minister I have the privilege of meeting many veterans and hearing your remarkable stories. I know I speak on behalf of all New Zealanders when I thank you for the contribution you have made to our peace and security.

National is committed to honouring your sacrifice. That is why today I’m delighted to be able to give you an overview of the Government’s response to the Law Commission’s review of the War Pensions Act. I know this has been a complicated process, which has taken some time to work through. I thank you for your patience. I believe we have developed a comprehensive package of initiatives in response.

But before I do, I would like to acknowledge the recent sacrifices our forces have made in Afghanistan.

Since 2003 the toll on New Zealand’s armed forces has been great – we have lost 10 brave soldiers in Afghanistan since we first sent troops. These soldiers have selflessly given their lives in the efforts to restore stability to Bamyan province. Their sacrifice, like the sacrifices of our servicemen and women in years before, will not be forgotten. There has also been a number of serious injuries from which the recovery can be a long, hard road.

The sacrifice generations of soldiers and their families have made for New Zealand will never be forgotten. Our servicemen and women help New Zealand play an important part in ensuring that we live in a stable, fair and just world.

In Afghanistan, New Zealand has more than played our part in restoring stability to the region and I am extremely proud of what our soldiers have achieved. Last month, we announced the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team will be withdrawn from Bamyan province in Afghanistan by the end of April 2013. This is a sensible, orderly and professional transition and the Bamyan local authorities and ISAF are comfortable with our proposed withdrawal date. 

I would personally like to thank all of our armed forces who have served in Afghanistan. While Afghanistan still has significant challenges to face, we should not under-estimate the huge difference New Zealand’s Provincial Reconstruction Team has made. Over the past 10 years, our troops have contributed to international counter-terrorism efforts, improved security, and the development and governance of Bamyan province. Their success is reflected in Bamyan’s position as a leader in the transition process.

2015 Gallipoli Centenary

As you will all be aware 2015 marks 100 years since our brave soldiers fought in the Battle of Gallipoli. Gallipoli was one of the most important points in New Zealand’s development and was the founding of the ANZAC spirit as we know it today. The centenary will be a significant occasion and is an event that must be remembered in the most appropriate way.

That is why we have committed to the development of the National War Memorial Park in Wellington to ensure there is a site fit for this occasion. Three weeks ago legislation was passed to ensure the park is ready in time for ANZAC Day 2015. The park will be an open space that will allow large crowds to gather in recognition of these important events. It will be a lasting legacy to all those servicemen and women who have fought for this country.

The Government has also made $17 million in Lotteries funding available for commemorative projects. This will help ensure that every small community around New Zealand has the opportunity to commemorate their fallen servicemen and women.

Planning for the 2015 ANZAC service at Gallipoli is also underway. We are looking for feedback on who should be allocated space, as it is bound to be over-subscribed. This is something that I expect members of the RSA will have strong views on, and I’d encourage you to have your say.

We are not just focusing on remembering the First World War. This morning a delegation of 24 veterans left from Whenuapai Airbase. They are travelling to Egypt to attend the 70th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein. This was another significant battle in New Zealand’s history where New Zealand troops fought with bravery under very difficult conditions.

In addition, there are a number of significant anniversaries coming up from the Second World War and we are committed to ensuring that those veterans, who are able to attend, can and do.

War Pensions Act

I would now like to move onto the Government’s response to the Law Commission’s Report into the War Pensions Act. As I mentioned, this has been a complicated process which has taken some time to work through. Our response has involved numerous government departments, a number of recommendations that have been difficult to cost, as well as significant liaison with the Australian Government. 

I would like to thank Veterans Affairs Minister Nathan Guy and his predecessor Judith Collins for their determination in working this through.

As I mentioned earlier today, we are announcing a package of exciting initiatives. We will soon be introducing legislation that will modernise the administrative and decision-making processes in the War Pensions Act. It will enable the provision of services that better meet the needs of elderly veterans, as well as those of modern day and future deployments.
This legislation delivers on our election promise.

The Government has accepted 132 of the Law Commission’s 170 recommendations. The changes will maintain and enhance the benevolence shown to veterans by Governments, and will ensure that no veteran is worse off. 

Importantly, we will adopt the Law Commission’s recommendation of implementing two distinct coverage schemes, rather than the current single scheme.

The introduction of universal accident compensation on 1 April 1974 is the point of division between these two schemes. All current veterans will be grandparented into the new Scheme One, which maintains current services and provisions. Scheme Two will be for future veterans, or people who haven’t claimed yet. This will start in 2015.

Operating two schemes will allow us to provide for modern rehabilitation practices for future veterans without impacting on current veterans. It will also enable us to deal with some discrepancies in entitlements.

I am also pleased to announce there will be a 5 per cent increase to the War Disablement Pension and Surviving Spouse Pension from 1 April 2013. This comes on top of the annual CPI increase, which this year is forecast to be 1.8 per cent. With a cost of $5.8 million this is a very significant and meaningful commitment in what are difficult financial times.

We will also be extending a range of support services to all veterans with qualifying service on the basis of need.

This will significantly expand by about 3,000 the number of veterans who will be able to access support services such as home help, personal care, garden and home maintenance as well as emergency alarms.

In addition, we’ll also extend the provision of these services to a veteran’s spouse for 12 months after a veteran’s death, rather than the current six months. This will give that wife, or husband, more time to adjust and we expect that 1,100 additional spouses will benefit.

We will also extend War Disablement Pensions to cease four weeks after death rather than the current two weeks, which brings it in line with New Zealand Superannuation.

This Government is committed to recognising and supporting our veterans, while acknowledging the tremendous sacrifices they have made for their country.

We will also introduce a ‘Veterans’ Weekly Income Compensation’ for veterans under the age of retirement and unable to work because of an impairment relating to their service. This will be paid at 80 per cent of the average wage, which is significantly higher than is currently available.

Veterans who have received this compensation for 10 years or longer will also be able to access a lump sum of $25,000 on retirement in recognition of their circumstances resulting from service.

We will introduce a lump sum payment of around $19,000 for veterans with a qualifying, service-related terminal illness, so these veterans and their families have support at a time of great need.

Importantly, we will introduce a Veterans Advisory Board and a Specialist Medical Advisory Board to provide the Minister of Veterans Affairs, and the Cabinet, with independent advice.

These are the significant parts of the Government’s response to the Law Commission report. Veterans Affairs Minister Nathan Guy will be talking to you tomorrow and he will go into more depth regarding these issues.

I am pleased with where we have got to in this response. It is comprehensive and it addresses the issues seriously. For too long veterans and the RSA have been lobbying for change and have not been taken seriously. In 2011 we made a commitment to you to address a number of these issues and we are delivering on that commitment.I am very proud to be leading a Government that is doing so.

Ladies and gentlemen. We will never forget those who gave their lives in service of their country. Their sacrifice helped give us the country we know today. We will never forget those who are serving us today.

This Government remains committed to honouring everything you have given for your country.