The morass of the Veterans Affairs controversy

Questions about Veterans Affairs that beg for answers
Minister of Veterans Affairs Julian Fantino responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, June 2, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Julian Fantino

“The fact of the matter,” Julian Fantino explained, “is that the opposition has constantly voted against those measures.”

With Fantino and his department now the subject of various criticisms and controversies, accused of not doing enough or not performing sufficiently to serve those who’ve served, both the Veterans Affairs minister and the Prime Minister have fallen back on this idea that the New Democrats and Liberals have “voted against” the good deeds of the current government. (You allege we aren’t doing enough, but look at all the things we are doing that you oppose.) But if that is a fact, it is not one the government is eager to detail. Indeed, the offices of both Fantino and Harper have so far declined to respond to my repeated requests to explain precisely which votes covered the initiatives and investments the government has accused the opposition of opposing.

If the NDP and Liberal opposition in this regard amounts to a vote against a budget bill or a set of estimates, then the phrase “voted against” is being used so loosely as to be meaningless. Even if the measures in question can be tied to a reasonably focused bill or vote, we’d surely have to explore the context: Why, precisely, did the New Democrats or Liberals vote as they did, and what exactly did they object to? Probably no one in the House of Commons believes that veterans should not be provided for by the federal government at some expense to the federal treasury. And rarely is a vote in the House as simple as an absolute yes or no.

But then, to actually discuss the particulars of each vote might require some effort and the presumptions that this is a place for reasonable discussions and that the public at large would appreciate as much.

Opposite this, opposition MPs cry out about cuts.

“Now we learn that the Prime Minister’s claim about only backroom bureaucrats being laid off was false. A third of the layoffs were people working on pensions, and disability benefits,” the NDP’s David Christopherson lamented this afternoon. “For vets, it has been a decade of darkness under the Conservatives. When will Conservatives stop misleading Canadians and finally live up to their obligation to our nation’s veterans?”

Last week, the Chronicle-Herald counted just fewer than a thousand positions eliminated at Veterans Affairs since 2009. The Prime Minister dismissed those cuts as “backroom administration.” This week, the Canadian Press has surveyed government reports and counted 895 positions eliminated, with jobs gone from branches dealing with pensions and rehabilitation. Fantino promptly dismissed that and Christopherson’s query.

“Mr. Speaker, in fact, there are back-office positions in almost every segment of Veterans Affairs, and that is what veterans have been saying that we should, in fact, reduce,” the minister explained. “A few examples: The government stopped asking veterans to show it their receipts for snow-clearing. That reduced almost 100 positions. In the disability benefit program, 12 photocopy and processing clerks were reduced when we moved to digitized medical records.”

After another question from the NDP deputy, Fantino tallied more cuts while boasting of greater “front-line” services.

“Mr. Speaker, while the opposition wants to increase government bureaucracy, we are increasing front-line support services for veterans and their families, including the recently announced eight new front-line mental health clinics for our veterans,” the minister said. “In the service-delivery branch, we are organizing three regional management centres into one in Montreal, which will reduce hundreds of managers, processing analysts and administrative support clerks. We make no apologies for finding efficiencies in a bureaucracy and translating those into active front-line services to our veterans and their families.”

All of which sounds lovely.

But if the story of the government’s cuts at Veterans Affairs is so grand—and eliminating a quarter of the positions in a department while maintaining satisfactory levels of service would be a grand achievement—then surely the department should offer a full explanation. I asked last Thursday for such a breakdown and am still waiting for that: I’ll happily post verbatim whatever I receive. The department seems similarly hesitant to explain to the Chronicle-Herald what sort of caseloads its case managers are carrying.

It seems somewhat odd that we are even haggling over staffing reductions at this late date; one might imagine that this is the sort of thing parliamentarians should have sorted through already. The most recent departmental performance reports were tabled more than a month ago, while the 2012, 2013 and 2014 reports on plans and priorities forecast reductions. But, in the fading days of 2014, we are apparently not all entirely clear on what’s going on at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mind you, the Veterans Affairs committee didn’t bother to consider the latest round of estimates of the government’s spending for the fiscal year; a meeting to do so last Wednesday never occurred. Nor has the committee commenced a study of the critical report of the auditor general, the report that initially started this last spasm of concern for goings-on at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

That the going concerns might obscure the possibly more real problem of the veterans’ charter is a cruel twist—particularly given that that charter was the subject of an all-party report just five months ago.

With the House due to adjourn for the winter break at the end of this week, no further business is currently scheduled for the Veterans Affairs committee. And it’s possible it won’t begin to study anything again until the last week of January. But it is tempting here to behold the current concerns and wonder if a few days of committee hearings couldn’t possibly bring us some amount of clarity. What positions have been eliminated? Have positions and staff been eliminated without great impact to the delivery or administration of services? The most recent departmental performance reports have Veterans Affairs meeting or exceeding the vast majority of its goal. Does that suggest good management? Or would critics quibble with the department’s goals? How, in all, will the government respond to the auditor general’s report? And would the opposition parties reverse the government’s staffing cuts?

In the absence of such stuff, each side, supported by facts without context, can only claim their own righteous indignation.