House Call with Carol Hughes

Veterans Affairs funding should be a no-brainer for any government

Canada just marked Remembrance Day, an occasion where we show our support and commitment to the brave men and women who have served and continue to serve our country. Despite that sentiment, political promises made to veterans do not always translate into action. That has been the case for successive governments who look for savings in veterans’ pensions and programs. The most recent example of this is the $372 million that was budgeted for Veterans Affairs but left unspent. This deprives veterans of services and benefits that can make a real difference in their post-service life. That was followed by a revelation that 270,000 ex-soldiers were short-changed by Veterans Affairs Canada for over eight years because of an accounting error made in the monthly indexing calculation on disability awards and pensions.

When trying to defend this, the government claimed it purposefully budgeted more money than needed to account for any unplanned assistance veterans may require. At the same time, they are introducing a new pension plan that will reduce the annual income of recently retired veterans which shows the contingency argument is somewhat contradictory. With an eye to correcting this, New Democrats brought a motion to parliament that instructs the government to roll any unspent funds into the Veterans Affairs budget for the following year.

Even then, the motion only recognizes part of the challenge. The government’s new and ironically named ‘Pensions for Life’ plan could be ground zero for where the ball is being dropped. It creates substantial inequality between ‘older’ and ‘newer’ pensioners with veterans who applied before 2006 maintaining regular payments while new applicants only receive a lump-sum payment up to $365,400.

Over time, the new pension will amount to substantially less than what veterans received under the old plan. In addition to this, come April, some veterans’ benefits will be abolished. Among those is the Career Impact Allowance Supplement which could amount to as much as $12,000 in lost income for those veterans who would have qualified.

The Minister of Veterans Affairs claims the new pensions will be more beneficial for veterans since the program can be tailored to meet the specific needs of each individual. While that may sound good, the claim is unsubstantiated. On the flipside, there is widespread agreement that veterans who applied for their pension after 2006 are at a disadvantage when compared with pre-2006 pension recipients.

The biggest reason the government seems to be changing pensions is to save money. It is estimated the new scheme will save nearly $500 million over five years. This also contradicts the claim that the government would spend additional money on veterans. What’s also worrisome is that the new program did not undergo a cost-benefit analysis by the Treasury Board. When that happens, it means the program is anticipated to cost less than $1 million a year. What’s not lost on veterans is that this negligible increase in financial support breaks an election promise to spend billions.

The New Democrat motion did pass, but governments shouldn’t have to be embarrassed into doing the right thing. Given the widespread support our veterans receive, their financial well-being should be a priority for any government. These individuals have done their part for our nation. It only makes sense that we make use of available funds on services and benefits that will support them after their service. It is the least we can do as a nation. The pensions that veterans earn are symbolic of our gratitude, but too many governments have only seen it as a line item in budgets that can be reduced.