Few incidents have embarrassed John Key's Government more than the shabby treatment of New Zealand veterans at the commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Crete. The Prime Minister, on being made aware of the issue in July, recognised this would not sit well with most people, and pledged to do better for the commemorations of other World War II battles. The Veterans Affairs Minister, Judith Collins, prepared a paper on how this could be done for presentation to the Cabinet in September. It might have been expected a better deal would have been announced shortly thereafter. That did not happen. Somewhat cynically, the veterans have been made to wait until the final fortnight of an election campaign.
There seems to have been no reason for this. The plight of the New Zealand veterans in Greece had been highlighted by a comparison with their Australian counterparts. The New Zealanders, most of them in their 90s, had been given just $2000 in Government support - less than a return airfare - and had had to pay out of their own pockets for modest accommodation, as well as arrange their own itineraries.
By way of contrast, the Australian veterans were flown to Crete by their Government, cared for by provided doctors, and stayed in the same upmarket accommodation as Australian officials.
The response of the New Zealand Government seemed obvious. Clearly, those who served the country so well 70 years ago in some of World War II's pivotal actions deserved nothing less than the same treatment as the Australian veterans. Duly, Mr Key made that an election pledge along those lines when he addressed the Returned and Services Association's national council on Monday. A National Government would pay for business class or Air Force flights, accommodation, meals and medical assistance for future commemorations of the likes of El Alamein and Monte Cassino, he said. Additionally, there would be Defence Force staff on hand to help the veterans.
This commitment, expected to cost millions, might seem to be at odds with a time of economic stress and the many and varied pressures on the public purse. But there are always exceptions to every rule. Given the debt owed them, surely no one will begrudge a belated show of generosity to the veterans. The Australian attitude of "whatever they want, our pleasure to provide" should be echoed. The departure of more than 50 New Zealand veterans to London next year for the unveiling of the RAF Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park is a worthy place to start.
National's proposed benevolence is also warranted by the fact that the battle commemorations will extend no longer than the next four years. The very passage of time means a Government can afford to be more generous in the funding of such trips. Indeed, as the number of veterans dwindles, there is every reason to regard them as national treasures, and to treat them accordingly.
The men treated so poorly at the commemorations on Crete accepted their lot stoically. Their plight would not have become public knowledge had it not been brought to light by an Australian documentary maker. Once the Government was alerted, it should have acted quickly to ensure there would be no repeat. A better deal could have been announced months ago. It was not an issue that should have become an election policy - with half an eye on shoring up National's elderly support base from the encroachment of New Zealand First. The policy is the right one, but the timing leaves an unnecessarily sour taste.