National pitches for veterans' vote

By Kevin Taylor

National is offering war veterans priority access to hospital services and Housing New Zealand accommodation.

The plan, announced by leader Don Brash to the Returned Services Association annual conference yesterday, repeats National's 2002 election pledge of improving access to health and welfare services by providing a veterans' gold card.

Labour immediately attacked the gold card idea as cynical vote-buying.

But the unseemly scramble for the veterans' vote could equally apply to Labour, with Veterans Affairs Minister George Hawkins telling the conference on Tuesday that 2006 would be the "Year of the Veteran".

That usurped National, as Dr Brash's speech contained a similar aim. Meanwhile, the gold card plan sparked a war of words over services for veterans as well as a claim from NZ First Leader Winston Peters that National had stolen its policy.

Dr Brash said later he would not put a precise number on the policy's cost but it was "not huge numbers of millions".

Details were still to be sorted out with the RSA but he envisaged veterans going to the top of waiting lists for surgery - for example for hip replacement operations.

But Mr Hawkins said National was offering "fools' gold".

The Government already looked after the housing and health of all New Zealanders on the basis of need, he said, a concept Dr Brash had previously championed, referring to last year's race debate.

Mr Hawkins said priority housing would make little difference to veterans when National intended selling state houses and was likely to axe income-related rents. In health everyone over 65 was already entitled to cheaper primary care.

Dr Brash also announced a review of veterans affairs, the establishment of a veterans advisory board, a review of the veterans pension system, and an unqualified apology to Vietnam veterans over Agent Orange as well as enhanced medical help for them and their offspring.

But Mr Hawkins said the Government had already announced a review of the War Pensions Act, and a veterans advisory board already existed.

And veterans should be wary of Dr Brash's review of veterans affairs considering the praise for the organisation at the conference, Mr Hawkins said.

Mr Hawkins said the Government was already in the process of consulting Vietnam veterans over resolving the Agent Orange issue once and for all - a process announced on Monday to the conference by Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Grey Power president Graham Stairmand welcomed the gold card idea, but said its benefits should be extended to all pensioners.

However, he did not expect many superannuitants would grumble about war veterans getting thecard.

The gold card

National's veterans' gold card:

* Will provide "a range" of benefits where there is established need including priority access to hospital services and access to Housing NZ accommodation

* Veterans will be eligible if they served in past conflicts, and get either national superannuation or a war disablement pension

* About 140,000 veterans could be eligible.

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