Mr. Sean Casey (Charlottetown, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, on behalf of my party and my leader, from the outset, I want to thank the members of Her Majesty’s Canadian armed forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for their service and dedication to Canada. I also want to thank the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore for bringing this motion before the House today.
The motion is timely, as it relates to the unveiling of the federal budget at the end of this month. You will recall, Mr. Speaker, and my friends from the NDP will certainly remember that day last fall when the Liberal party presented a motion to the veterans affairs committee calling for public hearings into the cuts to the Department of Veterans Affairs. We presented that motion precisely out of concern that the Conservatives were going to continue with more cuts to the department, cuts that will harm our veterans and impact their services, cuts that will make it almost impossible for those who serve veterans to do their jobs. There was an embarrassing moment when the motion came up for debate. The Conservatives were opposed to my motion to have public hearings and voted against it. When the motion came up for debate at committee, some Conservative members did not show up on time for the vote, and as a result, the Liberal motion passed. It did so, thanks to the support of the NDP members, who were on time.
The Conservatives were very angry at losing a vote in Parliament. Instead of doing the honourable thing by accepting the democratic decision to have public hearings, they took revenge. At the very next meeting, without consulting anyone in the opposition, including myself as sponsor of the motion and vice-chair of the committee, the Conservatives brought in their own witnesses who dutifully, one might say robotically, recited the talking points issued by the minister: “Nothing to see here, move along, all is well, services will not be impaired.
However, the minister’s witnesses did give evidence that, not including the lost jobs due to the budget cuts or the transfer of the last veterans hospital in Canada, up to 500 jobs would be lost within the Department of Veterans Affairs. Once the Conservative witnesses had their say, they moved to an in camera secret meeting. They emerged from that secret meeting with a motion that shut down public hearings.
I share this background information to highlight the fact that the opposition parties and veterans groups have been on this issue for many months, calling on the government to halt its cuts. However, it is not just Liberals, or the official opposition who are concerned about the cuts to veterans. The vast majority of Canadians, including young Canadians, want to preserve the benefits and services we provide to our veterans. Just this past weekend, I had the honour of participating in the annual Prince Edward Island model parliament. These young people get it. They understand that veterans deserve respect. They had two days of debate; two days in which to identify their priorities and pass bills in their model parliament. One of the bills passed in those two days was the veterans tax act, exempting veterans from provincial income tax. That displays a deep appreciation from young people for the sacrifices our veterans have made for Canada. These are people whose great-grandparents may know what it is like to be a traditional veteran. It is three generations removed. Many of them would be shocked to hear that the Conservatives are engaging in a process to cut money from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
If the example of our young people is not enough, let us consider what other countries are doing for veterans. The United States, in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the great depression, is exempting veterans from any budget cuts. Likewise, the United Kingdom, also in the midst of a terrible financial crisis, has exempted veterans from budget cuts, and also Australia. Canadians from all walks of life, from young people to our seniors, are wondering why the Conservative government is not exempting Canadian veterans from cuts as well.
The parliamentary secretary and the minister, or whoever else is responsible for reading the Conservative roboscript, will say the opposition is just trying to scare veterans. That simply is not true.
Mr. Sean Casey (Charlottetown, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, imagine my surprise when I heard the minister say that there have been consistent increases in the veterans affairs budget over the last six years.
The minister will be aware of a report prepared by Keith Colter, a report over which there is a claim of cabinet confidentiality, a report that the disclosure of which has been denied by committee. The Keith Colter report eventually made its way into the planning and priorities report and it advocated for a $226 million cut to the Department of Veterans Affairs this year. There was an excellent opportunity to take that $226 million and reinvest it back to improve the services that are being delivered to veterans and to improve the benefits that are being offered to veterans. It was a missed opportunity.
For the minister to say that there have been consistent increases to the budget at the Department of Veterans Affairs is entirely inconsistent with the planning and priorities report of his own department and the secret Keith Colter report. I would ask the minister to explain that discrepancy.
Mr. Sean Casey: Mr. Speaker, the Veterans Affairs committee did have occasion to visit a homeless shelter in Toronto, the Good Shepherd Ministries, and there is some excellent work going on there. While we were at the Good Shepherd Ministries with the committee, the minister sent in an employee to tape-record the meeting. That is where the priorities are.
Within the Good Shepherd Ministries, the amount of money that is being invested by the Department of Veterans Affairs to help homeless veterans in Toronto is zero. There is an embedded employee, so there is an employee who physically has an office there instead of in some other building, but the problem of homeless veterans is real, it is here, it needs greater support and greater funding. Support for this motion would be an excellent way to make a contribution to that problem, a contribution which is now minimal if not non-existent.