Speech to commemorate 60 years since the passing of the referendum on Compulsory Military Training (3 August 1949)
First delivered 3 August 2009
Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.
President of the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association Air Vice Marshall Robin Klitscher; President of the Compulsory Military Training and National Service Association Mr Dennis Cassells-Minnoch, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen and, most importantly, fellow servicemen and women.
It’s a great privilege to be the Government’s representative at this commemoration of the passing, 60 years ago today, of the referendum on Compulsory Military Training.
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.
In doing so, you became members of a relatively small and diminishing number of Kiwis who understand what it means to give up some of your own personal liberty, so that others can enjoy theirs. To serve others before self is an honourable undertaking.
Military service is unique in so many ways but its defining marks are personal risk and that you can’t just quit when you’ve had enough. I know, as I look around the audience now, that you are not quitters and New Zealand society is the better for your example over the years.
New Zealand salutes you and those who have passed before you for your honour and uniqueness as citizens. By your service, you have demonstrated your understanding of the relationship between freedom, choice and personal responsibility. You know the price of citizenship.
Since 1845, there have been many periods of imposed conscription into the military forces of New Zealand. Unlike today’s frequent calls to use military service as a means of sorting out social problems, these were political responses to national security threats.
The era of Compulsory Military Training from 1950 to 1959 began after a referendum, initiated by Prime Minister Peter Fraser 60 years ago, found 78 percent support following the perceived Soviet threat to the Suez Canal and a British request to supply a division for service in the Middle East. Notwithstanding electoral defeat, the people’s wishes, as indicated in the referendum, were continued by the incoming Government of Sidney Holland. Some 60,000 Kiwi men served under CMT through the 1950s.
Following a decision by the Holyoake Government, in 1961, to reorganise New Zealand’s Armed Forces, national military service was reintroduced. All young men were required to register on their 20th birthdays and those selected by birthday ballot were required to undertake three months’ full time training followed by three years of part-time service of at least 60 days. This was abolished by the incoming Kirk Government in 1972 after more than 20,000 men had entered the Forces through the scheme.
Regrettably, the period since 1972 has seen the capability of our Armed Forces steadily eroded. It is, therefore, timely that we are now undertaking a Defence Review. The White Paper that will flow from that work in early 2010 will be the first comprehensive assessment of New Zealand’s defence capability requirements since 1997. As former servicemen, you are a major stakeholder and I hope that you will make your thoughts known via the public consultation phase which is currently underway.
As part of Defence Review 09, I am leading three companion studies and one of these, regarding voluntary national service, is of direct relevance to today’s gathering. We know that we have grown and developed as citizens as a result of our time in uniform.
However, we also know that ‘compulsory’ is not a concept that sits well with the New Zealand psyche. I believe that there is a place, in this increasingly individualistic society within which we live, to establish a model of national service that represents a new joint venture between the State and the people. I am confident that this study will support my belief and hope that, before very long, we may see a new generation of young Kiwis offering to serve their country – not only in the Armed Forces but potentially across all aspects of society.
It is pleasing to note the current work underway to examine medallic recognition for your service. In my view, this is long overdue. As I mentioned earlier, it is not the nature of service but the fact that it occurred that is the defining aspect. The ability of this country to contribute to the general deterrent effect of western forces against external aggression by the establishment of large standing forces in the 1950s and 60s was as strategically important for the country then as is our ability to commit highly trained smaller elements to United Nations’ operations now. That is why I support the award of a National Service Medal that recognises all who entered military service and that does not differentiate on the basis of criteria which are, in many cases only relevant to a certain era. For New Zealand to enjoy one standard of citizenship, it is vital that we establish one price of citizenship. Giving up your personal freedom for the sake of others is that price and it is one that you have all paid. I believe it fair that a grateful nation should recognise this and equitable that it should be via one medal. In doing so, New Zealand would be striking not just a medal but, in fact, a very good deal in reconciling the nation’s use of your liberty and choice.
There is no greater melting pot for society than a barrack block and the common threat of the dormitory corporal. In my platoon on basic training we had a lawyer, a farmer, a policeman, a teacher, two hairdressers, a receptionist, government department employees, army employees, tradesmen, several unemployed people – and an MP. They included Koreans, Chinese, South Africans, British and Australians – but their commitment to New Zealand was no less than mine. That is a pretty good basis for citizenship. Many will, I’m sure, remain friends for life.
I have no doubt that you are standing there now, remembering with a grin, some of your mates from basic and subsequent training. One of the many human quirks that bind servicemen and women is that we tend to forget the hardship and, instead, remember the humour and the characters we met. I was amused to read an account by Ian McKie of the 5th Intake CMT that sums this up perfectly. Ian was a radiographer and was expecting to be assigned to an Army hospital unit. It was with some surprise that he found himself assigned to an Armoured Corps unit as a radio operator in a tank! But radio can be found in both words so it makes sense to us of course.
Margaret Thatcher noted that freedom is the most contagious of ideas and the one most destructive of tyranny. That is why tyrants of every kind have fought-still fight-so hard to destroy it. They will always fail because where freedom is the heritage of centuries, as in our country, it is tenaciously defended: and because where it is newly established, it inspires confidence and hope. Nowhere and never has it been consciously surrendered.
Ladies and gentlemen, you have done more than most to keep freedom’s flame burning. Like those who have sailed, marched and flown before you, you have paid the price of citizenship and for that, I offer the thanks of all New Zealanders. It is now the turn of others to continue your legacy.
Stand Easy – Rest.