ADDITIONAL BRIEFING TO THE INCOMING MINISTER FOR VETERANS
HON MEKA WHAITIRI
1 December 2020
Ka tae atu te karere ki te rōpū toa rā
Tena koe minita.
Congratulations on your appointment as Minister for Veterans. This is a significant role in the lives of so many New Zealanders.
Veterans’ Affairs New Zealand (Te Tira Ahu Ika A Whiro) will provide you the traditional ‘BIM,’ or Briefing to the Incoming Minister. This is a good document that show the essentials of the role necessary for managing the transition between Ministers and the first few months of activity. The purpose of this Additional BIM is to set out what you won’t be told through official channels – not because of subterfuge but often because there are some things that officials can’t tell you.
Nothing in my observations about Veterans’ Affairs NZ (VANZ) should be taken as a criticism of any individual nor a reflection of the quality and commitment of their personnel. They do an extraordinary job, often with limited resources and little thanks. This ABIM is structured as follows and I recommend that you read it in conjunction with Additional BIM for the Defence Minister.
- Veterans – A problematic term
- Assistance Available – A chaotic constellation of providers and entitlements
- Advocacy – Fragmented, factionalised and weak
- Remembrance – 364 days to go.
- What do Veterans Want?
- The Long Handshake
Veterans – A problematic term
The term veteran is central to the problem of providing appropriate support to those who should receive it. I have consulted widely in the service community on this subject and it is difficult to achieve consensus. Like many, I believe that the term has been ‘hijacked’ by some sections of the older ex-service community and is used to actively exclude others, particularly younger people. Most of the more than 30,000 contemporary veterans do not identify with the term.
For a start, VANZ only exists to provide support to those with (or connected to) ‘Qualifying Operational Service.’ They are effectively hamstrung by the legislation through which they exist.
A bullet wound received in a training accident in Waiouru hurts just as much and causes the same long-term challenges as one received in Afghanistan. Service in the NZDF is inherently dangerous whether deployed overseas or not and it seems that successive governments have learned little from previous litigation regarding training incidents or medallic recognition grievances.
From the moment you attest to serve via oath or affirmation, you have surrendered freedoms held by civilian members of society. Your life is no longer under your control and you have agreed to put yourself in harm’s way as required by your superior officers. By any measure, that constitutes service to the nation and, in return, the nation is responsible for your care from that moment forward. How do we recognise that service in a word? The proper meaning of the term ‘Veteran’ has been lost through Hollywood, overuse and misuse. It should be replaced with something else. Perhaps, reflecting our unique heritage, the te reo terms pāraeroa or ika a Whiro offer a fresh start in this regard?
The legislation does not sit well with the nature of New Zealand’s involvement in “Wars of Choice” (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan) that have been the norm for more than 30 years. We deploy NZ Police, intelligence operators, civilian medical staff and a myriad of personnel from other government agencies. What about the Defence industry contractors and locally employed personnel such as Afghan interpreters? The legislation allows coverage if they are attached to the NZDF by the Chief of the Defence Force but that is not the right way to go about it as a national problem any more than the Minister continually being asked to declare operational service as qualifying for coverage.
At the heart of this problem is that VANZ, as an opt-in service, can only deal with those that register with them. Adding to that the way legislation defines veterans means it deals with only 12,000 plus clients per year (BIM 2017). A simple staff check shows that allowing for about 35,000 pāraeroa from WWII to now who DO qualify creates a missing population of 23,000 without even touching on spouse or whanau entitlements. The number is vastly greater than that if everyone who attests plus their whanau is counted. Expensive? Yes. It will take a transformational minister and government to do the right thing for all.
Assistance Available – A chaotic constellation of providers and entitlements
VANZ states that “it puts veterans and clients at the heart of everything we do.” I don’t doubt that but the need must be viewed from the perspective of the pāraeroa who just sees a chaotic constellation of providers who are all claiming to do the same. There are several government agencies as well as NGOs, service groups and charities, Facebook support communities as well as international groups to navigate. A useful demonstration of this is found on the weserved.nz website which provides a service directory:
Add to that the Ministry of Health, DHBs, ACC, IRD, MSD, MCH, GPs, medical specialists and private health insurers/providers. The United Nations also provides benefits for our wounded and killed while serving under a UN flag. There are also private providers of help such as Dion Jensen. How do we put the service person or surviving spouse in the centre of a constellation that struggles to even list every possible source of assistance?
One solution lies in transferable entitlements which can be drawn on as the recipient sees fit. Some might call this a ‘voucher system.’ Australia has set out on this path with a suite of initiatives. On 27 October 2018, a joint media release by the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Darren Chester, announced a new package of initiatives for veterans and their families. At the core of this is the Australian Government’s intention to develop an Australian Veterans’ Covenant that will be enacted in legislation so the nation can recognise the unique nature of military service and support veterans and their families. This follows the UK Govt’s work in this area and is something I have written about as a ‘must do’ for New Zealand. Your predecessor, Hon Ron Mark, did some work on a kawenata.
There’s a lot of good stuff in the Aussie package, ranging from an improved Veterans’ Card to money for a National Centre for Veterans’ Health plus accommodation for 40 vets and their families attached to a revamped rehabilitation centre in Sydney. There’s also an extra investment of $7.6 million for the Kookaburra Kids Defence Program to boost targeted support to children of ex-defence force members who are experiencing mental health issues due to their service.
Then there’s the eligibility criteria. It’s just one day if you’re in the regular force. No eligibility if you’re a reservist of 20+ years service (unless you do specified operations or are seriously hurt in training). A lapel badge for ‘Veterans’ and a separate one that says ‘Reserve’. This is a prime example of plucking defeat from the jaws of victory. It just reaffirms that reservists are considered second class citizens by the full-time officials who advised on this policy and the politicians who signed it off. Consider Reservists’ response to bush fires, earthquakes, floods and COVID-19 and ask yourself why they should be treated differently.
The NZ Defence Force has described, in multiple documents, the virtue of its Total Defence Workforce comprising full-time, part-time, civilian and uniformed personnel. Let’s hope the ‘Great Aussie Divide’ between its full-time and reserve elements is not replicated here when considering what constitutes a veteran. We need to focus on what all service personnel, past and present, have in common, rather than what separates us.
This was well summed up in a speech by Associate Defence Minister, Hon Heather Roy, to the 60th anniversary gathering of the NZ Compulsory Military Training and National Service Association in August 2009. In it, she stated:
“To serve your country is an honourable and unique undertaking. It does not matter whether your entry into the profession of arms is by the passing of a law, a ballot or a personal career choice. Neither does it matter whether your service is full-time, part-time; of long or short duration nor which service or unit you are employed in. What matters is that you served.”
New Zealand, and particularly its defence force and veteran community, is too small to be exclusive in any field. So, let’s learn from the Aussies. Spend more on veterans and their families. They’ve earned it. Reduce the bureaucracy around that support. Let’s develop an Armed Forces Covenant and get it into legislation and by all means have veterans’ cards and lapel badges. But when deciding who is a veteran, don’t be like the Aussies…be inclusive.
After all…you wouldn’t take them on at rugby without a reserve bench would you? And those guys on the bench are wearing the same jersey as the ones on the field.
Be cautious of ‘feel good’ initiatives which may have the effect of pushing contemporary veterans away. A big party on 25 April every year does nothing to address this. Neither will store discounts or people saying “Thank you for your service”. They’re all nice gestures but what will actually make a difference is as highly individualised as we are.
NZ’s ACC system does not serve veterans’ health challenges well. We have too many gaps in our care programme – especially for veterans and their families. These often appear as negative stories in the media. Why, for instance, should a traumatic leg amputation in a war zone get gold-standard treatment but a traumatic leg amputation in a training accident in NZ get less than bronze standard? (These cases actually happened).
Our legislation, despite its volume, is incomplete. Accident Compensation is a case in point where injury is covered but sickness is not. Special cases have to be brought to cover some situations such as the soldiers and their children who suffered from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War and exposure to radiation during the observation of nuclear tests. Will exposure to depleted uranium from anti-armour shells, prophylactic operational medical regimens and post-traumatic stress be the next series of special cases? Who knows – but these people shouldn’t have to wait until most of them are dead for the ‘science to be in’ and politicians to act.
The Veterans’ Pension is a cynical branding exercise. It is simply NZ Superannuation with a clause relating to payments continuing while in hospital. A Veteran SuperGold card is no different to a standard SuperGold card except for the addition of the word ‘veteran.’ A Community Services Card is thrown in for good measure. There is enough non-taxable lump sum on death to have a funeral. If we are going to have a meaningful Veteran’s Pension it should be worth more and have many more distinct benefits than standard NZ Super.
Advocacy – Fragmented, factionalised and weak
Avoid trying to pick winners in the veteran support space. VANZ role is defined by legislation. I do not believe that being a unit within the NZDF is the appropriate structure for VANZ. That’s because not all veterans are NZDF personnel. Second, current serving veterans are caught in a difficult situation being alongside their peers who do not qualify for support under law because the latter do not have ‘Qualifying Service.’ Finally, no matter how forcefully the Head of VANZ makes a case, she reports to the CDF and he is not bound to follow her advice. VANZ services would operate best as an independent crown entity operating a network of liaison mechanisms with all providers. A Defence and Veterans Ombudsman would be a useful addition to this area. While the Chief Ombudsman currently has responsibility, he rarely investigates Defence and Veterans issues with the latter usually finding its way to the Health and Disability Commissioner or the Human Rights Commissioner.
In the last parliament, money was allocated to the RNZRSA and to No Duff. One because they’re the biggest and longest in existence. The other because they ran a very effective public campaign highlighting inadequacies in veteran care. The RNZRSA is a shadow of its former self and, if it was a burger chain, it would go broke. That’s because it’s effectively a franchise model where branches can use the RSA brand for a small capitation fee but the head office has little to no control over the quality or nature of the product delivered by branches. It is setting out to change but that will take considerable time and it is not, therefore, the simple solution to community-based support that successive governments have seen it as. No Duff is a relatively recent arrival on the support scene and has positioned itself as a first-responder to veteran personal crises. It too has had internal issues and, like the RNZRSA, is no quick fix for veterans’ support. The problem with public money going to either of these organisations is that it ignores the many other private sector groups engaged in veteran care.
As the list in section one shows, the veteran support sector is highly fragmented and factionalised. This is a great concern given it’s such a small community. While some of these groups are earnest in their intent to help veterans, others are ‘closed shop’ operations and some are simply vanity projects for those that run them. I can provide more detail on that when we meet.
I believe that a Defence Force Association is long overdue. This would provide the ‘hub’ which the ‘spokes’, including VANZ and all other stakeholders could join to. The current legislative framework makes the CDF both the employer of and the advocate for every service person. This reliance on a ‘benign father figure’ is outdated. It is fraught, at best, and an unconscionable arrangement at worst. A DFA need not operate as a union like the Police Association does but would provide the living link between the current serving and former personnel and their whanau. It could advocate and lobby on behalf of the force – including veterans. There is nothing to stop an association of veterans forming now and moves have been made in that respect. However, for current personnel to join may require a law change.
Remembrance – 364 days to go.
Remembrance is not just about wearing a poppy and laying wreaths. It is about taking actions all year round that seek to ensure that the world remains at peace. It is also about respecting those who have contributed to that peace and ensuring we remain vigilant – equipped and trained to deter aggression. In this regard, New Zealand hasn’t remembered much at all.
A significant amount of VANZ effort goes into commemoration and remembrance. Some of this takes the form of overseas visits and representation. From the 2017 BIM “The Government has previously organised and funded veteran groups to return to the location of their service for 50th, 60th, and 70th anniversary commemorations.” In the COVID-19 environment, these trips will not take place and it is arguable that they were ever a good use of taxpayer money. Most veterans that I have spoken to would rather focus on the living and see this money spent on those that served and their whanau. We do not wish to see the money returned to the general account.
Service cemeteries is another area of VANZ activity that requires a re-think. In the 2017 BIM, VANZ noted that it was responsible for the maintenance of 183 service cemeteries. This is done through local contractors with widely variable outcomes. Most are not aware that service cemeteries only relate to (certain) WWII and later interments. The British tradition has seen the fallen laid to rest where they fell and an excellent network of Commonwealth War Graves is superbly maintained around the world. However, many of the New Zealand Wars, South African Wars, WWI and WWII are in private plots or commemorated on their family tombstone. They have fallen into a poor state.
The New Zealand Remembrance Army, led by former Army officer, Major Simon Strombom DSD, numbers several thousand volunteers. Without any funding, they have set about cleaning and restoring headstones and plaques around the country with the aim of having them all done by ANZAC Day 2021. This is uplifting and also should be a source of embarrassment for any government. It is time that a NZ War Graves Commission was established to guide and assist this important work.
What do Veterans Want?
I don’t claim to have any special knowledge with which to answer this other than having helped many service people resettle into civilian life. The most common theme is the difficulty in establishing a new sense of purpose and I include all those who have served, not just those who have deployed, in this group.
The two common threads that link all veterans, in my opinion, are our desire to see an end to conflict (we know the actual price); and an ongoing acknowledgement of the worth of what we learned in the Forces. When we see the same politicians who pose for selfies with veterans then make poor choices in international relations and national security, it is soul-destroying.
The second point is, perhaps, the most troubling. We have employers happy to turn up to ANZAC Day wearing their Grandfather’s medals but not prepared to hire a veteran because the human resources manager can’t relate their skills to a civilian role. This large group, which I call NIMOs – ‘Not In My Organisation’ – is a constant reminder for veterans of the gap between their life in uniform and society at large. The Defence Force also has a role to play in bridging this gap.
The ‘Long Handshake’
The ‘Long Handshake’ is a term I used in my ABIM for your colleague, Hon Peeni Henare. It means remaining in contact with an individual in some way, on their terms, so that they never lose the feeling of connectedness with the force. If they do step away, making it easy to reconnect is key. It is the concept of whanau, hapu and iwi applied to our defence force personnel throughout their entire lives, not just their main career time.
The ‘Long Handshake’ in practice, allows personnel to move seamlessly between full-time and part-time duties in uniform or civilian roles and should include veterans. There is an opportunity for many initiatives such as volunteer civilians (White Force) who could act as role players in exercises as occurred in the Southern Katipo exercise series. In response to the feeling of a loss of sense of purpose, there is potential for a ‘Veteran or V Force’ along the lines of the US organisation, Team Rubicon. It organises volunteer veterans (anyone who has served one day or more), and undertakes humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. Others might want to engage in think tank work on national security. Many will be happy to focus on our defence heritage as the NZ Remembrance Army does so well in caring for service graves and researching military history.
The NZDF is decisively engaged with the national response to COVID-19. While it is absolutely appropriate that they acted in a first responder capacity, the ongoing management of isolation facilities is not the reason we recruit and train warriors. They will tell you that they are doing OK and happy to continue but that is not the case. The government urgently needs to develop an exit strategy for the NZDF from this role. However, there is a role for ex-service personnel to assist with this programme.
I think it’s great that effort is being put into healing the wounds, both visible and invisible, of our veterans. But it is nowhere near enough. Society needs to decide how it is going to apply the ANZAC Day mantras of “We Will Remember Them” and “Lest We Forget” to both the fallen and living veterans for the remaining 364 days each year.
Detractors will argue that such a system as I have described will create two classes of citizen. That is both true and irrelevant. We already have two classes – those few who put their lives at risk and give up personal freedoms in defence of our society – and the majority who don’t.
Congratulations again on your appointment and I hope, in the natural order of things, the Veterans portfolio with you at the helm will once again be held in the Cabinet. I look forward to meeting you and your staff soon.
About the Author – LtCol (Retd) Simon Ewing-Jarvie PhD.
I served for twenty five years in two different services as a full-timer and part-timer as well as several years as a defence civilian teaching command studies at university. I have been on operational deployments twice, trained in many countries and worked as Senior Ministerial Advisor to the Associate Minister of Defence (Hon Heather Roy) 2008 – 2010 during the period of the development of the 2010 Defence White Paper. My comments, therefore, are based on wide-ranging experience of the Defence and Veterans environment. UNCLAS is NZ’s only national security blog and publishing company.