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Minister of National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan responds to a question during Question Period in the Hosue of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on May 15, 2017.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan gave a first peek at the government's new defence policy Thursday by announcing tax breaks for all military personnel and police officers deployed on major operations abroad.

He announced this in a speech delivered during a graduation ceremony at the Royal Military College of Canada in which he lamented the treatment of military personnel over the years.

Successive governments have failed to provide the military with the resources needed to help and support those in uniform, he said, before promising the Liberals' new defence policy would address the problem.

"Canada's new defence policy must put those who serve at its core," Sajjan told the graduating class and hundreds of family members and military personnel in attendance.

"It must do more than pay lip service to the fact that our people are our most important capability."

Sajjan has said the defence policy update will be released on June 7.

But first came the tax measure, which will see the salaries of military personnel and police officers sent overseas on major operations exempted from federal income tax for the duration of their deployments.

The move, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2017 exempts eligible salaries up to the pay level of lieutenant-colonel and is expected to cost the federal treasury about $85-million over the next five years.

It also addresses what has been a thorny issue for the minister, after some personnel based in Kuwait publicly complained about a policy change last fall that threatened to strip their tax-exempt status.

"When our men and women in uniform deploy, they and their families make great sacrifices, they and their families make great sacrifices on our behalf," Sajjan said, sparking applause from the crowd.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan, who had been pressing the minister to address the concerns raised by those deployed to Kuwait, welcomed the decision, despite the length of time it took to make.

"Those who put themselves in harm's away and sacrifice time away from their loved ones should not be shortchanged by their government," Bezan said in a statement.

The rest of Sajjan's speech on Thursday was largely a continuation of the message that the minister delivered in an earlier address to defence industry representatives and experts two weeks ago.

But while that earlier speech focused on how years of underfunding had left the military struggling to replace aging equipment, the target this time around was the effect underfunding has had on people.

That includes problems with the recruiting system that have resulted in a shortage of personnel in critical areas, Sajjan said. The shortfall has left current service members overstretched and in danger of burnout.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson last year found the military was short more than 4,000 full-time, trained personnel, while departmental reports have shown the gap in reserve members is even bigger.

The minister also singled out concerns about the services available to ill and injured personnel and the system for transitioning these people to civilian life, which has become a source of constant complaints.

"Making the transition to civilian life has been too hard and the frustrations and red tape, too numerous," Sajjan said.

"This is not the message of gratitude government should be sending troops at the end of their military careers. We need a new approach."

Yet the minister's speech stopped short of offering any solutions to these problems, many of which have been known for years but remain unresolved despite past promises to fix them.

Sajjan would only say that the defence policy update represented "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get the government's end of the bargain right."

Expectations are now sky-high for the new defence policy, which Liberal ministers have said will include "significant investments" for the military while not providing any details.

What remains unclear is exactly how the government will meet those expectations, given the size of the federal deficit and systemic problems such as a troubled procurement system that has no easy fixes.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan avoided giving an explanation Wednesday for why he overstated his role in a 2006 Afghanistan battle. Sajjan says he is focused on meeting the needs of the Canadian Armed Forces.

The Canadian Press

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