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Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Monday, May 11, 2015. O’Toole tells the House of Commons veterans committee that he doesn’t trust the opposition to pass a bill with changes to veterans benefits before Parliament adjourns — likely next month, with an election scheduled for October.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Harper government has stuffed proposed improvements to veterans benefits into the omnibus budget bill, saying it needs to make sure it passes before the next election.

But the move could also silence opposition critics.

It's an unusual tactic, since Veteran Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole had already introduced separate legislation — Bill C-58 — to enact the changes, which include a new retirement benefit for severely disabled soldiers, a separate $70,000 injury award and a proposed $7,238 caregivers benefit, among other things.

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O'Toole told the House of Commons veterans committee that he doesn't trust the opposition to pass the bill before Parliament adjourns — likely next month, with an election scheduled for October.

He pointed to an NDP motion, debated on Monday, which called on the government to recognize its social obligation to veterans and their families, as well as recent statements that the changes don't go far enough.

"It's clear you wanted to delay, and I won't allow a delay to happen when I've made a commitment to veterans," O'Toole said in an answer to a question by NDP veterans critic Peter Stoffer.

The bill was introduced in late March, but has yet to be brought before a Commons committee for detailed study, said Stoffer, who noted that his party actually "likes" the legislation.

"We in the opposition — I cannot speak for the Liberals — but we have never indicated a delay in Bill C-58. And to indicate that we have is simply not true," said Stoffer.

He said the effect of putting the changes into the massive budget bill is that veterans groups won't have a chance to comment before Parliament on the proposed changes.

The decision also jams opposition parties, which usually vote against budget bills. Additionally, it provides an opening for the Conservatives in the upcoming campaign to say that the Liberals and NDP voted against improved veterans benefits.

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O'Toole's parliament secretary, Ontario Conservative MP Pierre Lemieux, said there's still a possiblity that portions of the budget bill affecting veterans would be open to public scrutiny and comment, but that decision would rest with the Commons finance committee.

Liberal veterans critic Frank Valeriote said he was skeptical that the stand-alone veterans legislation would make it all of the way through before Parliament dissolved, but suggested the government introduced it late in the process.

Since replacing Julian Fantino in January, O'Toole has had the monumental task of rebuilding bridges with the politically-important veterans community, which has grown increasingly outraged over a series of issues, including gaps in the veterans benefits system, regional office closures, and slights by the former minister.

Conservative MPs, who took turns lobbing friendly questions at him during Tuesday's committee meeting, repeatedly returned to the issue of under-spending in the department, which surfaced last fall.

Federal budget records show that since 2006, veterans affairs was unable to spend $1.13 billion of its budget, money that was subsequently returned to the federal treasury.

The revelation created a political firestorm, one that evidently still smarts as O'Toole responded to questions by saying the issue was used to deliberately "sow seeds of confusion" over what is a normal practice of government and emerges during a slow news cycle.

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The government's defence — then and now — is that departments always appropriate extra funds so they don't run short, especially in service based departments like veterans.

With so many elderly veterans passing away, O'Toole said it's tough for the department to run projections.

"The estimate does not anticipate veterans passing away over the course of the cycle," he said. "We see most of the lapsed funds coming, sadly, when we're losing a large number of our World War Two and Korean veterans. In terms of lapsed funds, this is why."

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