There’s nothing like the topic of medallic recognition to get the teeth grinding and sabres rattling in the defence force community. There is a long history of grievances around orders, decorations and medals. It is surprising how resistant many governments and officials are to settling what, in most cases, ends up being a $70 bit of metal and coloured ribbon with an accompanying afternoon tea. The significance is not in the cost but in the acknowledgement by the State of an individual’s service to others and the importance of that can’t be over-estimated.
That’s why I was impressed to see that Australia has, since 2011, had a National Emergency Medal. It is awarded to “persons who rendered sustained service during specified dates in specified places in response to nationally-significant emergencies within Australia; or to other persons who rendered significant service in response to such emergencies.” A committee appointed by the Governor-General determines what events will be considered national emergencies for the purpose of the award and who gets it. A clasp for each emergency is struck. At the present time, the following events are declared for the purpose of the medal:
- the bushfires that happened in the State of Victoria in February 2009;
- the floods that happened in the State of Queensland during December 2010 and January 2011, and Cyclone Yasi;
- Tropical Cyclone Debbie 2017;
- the floods that happened in North Queensland in January and February 2019; and
- the bushfires that happened in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia or the Australian Capital Territory between September 2019 and February 2020.
While any individual can nominate anyone else, formed units such as fire fighters nominate in bulk for all their personnel. Of note is that there are Kiwi fire fighters – those who helped with the Aussie bushfires – wearing this medal.
A quick run through of recent New Zealand events requiring sustained or significant service includes:
- Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes
- Mosque shooting response
- Any number of floods around the country
- Rena oil spill
- Nelson bush fires
- White Island/Whakaari eruption
- COVID-19 response (largest deployment of defence force and police since East Timor)
Late last year, I ran a straw poll on LinkedIn. Although only 19 responded, 84% were in favour of a NZ National Emergency Medal.
As Julia Gillard put it when announcing the Australian medal, it is for the many, not the few that the traditional Honours system generally caters for. Like any medal regulations, the Australian award isn’t perfect. However, we have the opportunity to learn from their experience and create something unique to recognize the service of all Kiwis, paid and volunteer, who put themselves into risky situations to help others.
We need to move past the mentality that operational service only occurs outside New Zealand. We must also understand that the frontline is not just occupied by people in uniform. The health workers at the forefront of the COVID-19 response are testament to that. But we don’t need a COVID medal; we need something that lives on and unites generations of service as was achieved with the NZ Defence Service Medal. It was a special moment for me recently to be at a family dinner where three generations had DSMs. At a neighbourhood gathering not long after, five out of seven people had a DSM ranging from Compulsory Military Training through more recent full-time service and reserve service. These are the ties that help to unite communities. So let’s get on with it.
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