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Tories use majority to halt public probe of Veterans Affairs cuts

The Conservatives on the Commons veterans affairs committee have halted a study that was forced upon them by the opposition into the trimming of hundreds of millions of dollars from the department that provides services and benefits to former soldiers.

As a result, the public won't hear from veterans or the veterans ombudsman about the cuts, Liberal MP Sean Casey told a news conference on Thursday. "It is a gross abuse of the public trust," he said. "And yet these same Conservatives wrap themselves in the flag while cutting funding to the Veterans Affairs department."

Mr. Casey took advantage of a temporary opposition majority on the committee last week to turn its discussion to reductions of $226-million over two years from the department's $3.5-billion budget. The committee had been looking at ways to commemorate veterans in the 21st century and the Conservatives were not pleased to see the topic changed without their approval.

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They did allow the inquiry into the budget cuts to proceed for one day. Without consulting the opposition, they invited two Veterans Affairs bureaucrats to a meeting on Tuesday to explain that the cuts would not affect veterans benefits and services. Then the meeting went behind closed doors.

When the public was allowed back into the committee room at a Thursday meeting, the discussion had returned to the topic of commemorative gestures. What went on while the committee was in camera is a secret but it is apparent that the Conservatives used their majority to refocus the discussion on their preferred topic.

The Veterans Affairs bureaucrats told the committee the reason the budget can be cut without affecting veterans is that the number of traditional veterans from the Second World War and Korea is expected to decline significantly over the next five years as they succumb to old age.

Guy Parent, the veterans ombudsman, told a Senate committee this fall that the number of aging veterans is not declining as fast as projected and the department does not know how many new veterans from conflicts like Afghanistan will take advantage of the benefits that are offered.

The fact Mr. Parent will not now comment publicly about those statements makes it even more important that he be called before the Commons committee, Mr. Casey said.

When Mr. Casey challenged Conservative committee chairman Greg Kerr during the daily Question Period about the decision to cut off debate on the cuts, Mr. Kerr accused Mr. Casey of disrupting the committee's business.

"I know a chair must be fair and neutral but the bizarre behaviour of this member forces me to answer what he's been trying to do in the last number of days," Mr. Kerr said.

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"Our committee has been looking very carefully at the accusations that he made about great cutbacks and loss of opportunity for veterans. That was proven by the witnesses to be absolutely wrong," he said. "Our government has made major commitments to veterans and will continue to do so because it's so important. The fact that he continues to disrupt the committee is something he has to look within himself for."

The bureaucrats told the committee Tuesday that it is mandated by statue that veterans will receive their benefits and services whether there is money in the budget or not. If the budget does not cover the costs, they said, more money will have to be found.

But Liberal Senator Romeo Dallaire, the officer who was force commander of the United Nations mission to Rwanda in the 1990s, said that whenever a government talks about cuts, the public should be concerned about what will be lost.

Mr. Dallaire said his years of experience at National Defence have proved to him that "often you will cut in the areas that are the softest and sometimes that includes service delivery or assets that go to your clients."

If a government is going to throw out numbers, Mr. Dallaire said, "then it should be able to also defend them."

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