The public may soon have a better understanding of the impact of the federal government's cuts to Veterans Affairs Canada, after a lone Liberal MP saw an opportunity and jumped on it Thursday morning when three Conservative MPs were late showing up for work at the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.
P.E.I. MP Sean Casey, who informed colleagues 48 hours beforehand he intended to bring forward a motion to study the effects of more than $200 million in cuts to a department mostly based in his province, told the chair Thursday he wasn't going to wait until the committee went in-camera at the end of the meeting to raise his point.
Instead, Casey, speaking in French, took the first opportunity he had to table his motion requesting the Committee suspend its current study on commemorating veterans and move instead to a study on the impact of the cuts.
The Veterans Affairs committee had quorum but the Tories were one MP shy of a majority at the early morning meeting so they lost the vote and the Liberal motion passed.
It is the first study the opposition parties have been able to impose, the Liberals say, since the Conservatives won a majority government.
"Because we had the Conservatives outnumbered, it passed," Casey told Huffington Post. "We excused the witnesses, and quite frankly I feel badly that we had people come to Ottawa expecting to testify today and had to be sent home, but I think we have done a great service to veterans by putting this at the top of the agenda against the Conservatives' wishes."
Conservative MP Ben Lobb, however, tried to get a do-over. He suggested some MPs didn't understand what Casey had read in French and the committee should hold the vote again with the motion read in English.
"What that clearly indicates is their lack of respect for Canada's two official languages and it clearly indicates that although the Conservatives were given the motion 48 hours ago, in both official languages, this was apparently a surprise," Casey said.
Casey dismissed any notion that politics played any part in his decision to read the motion in French.
"No, I am working hard at learning French and every chance I get to speak French in the chamber or in committee, I do," he said.
The largest reductions in the $226 million in cuts over two years, outlined in the department's plans and priorities report, will be to compensation and financial support for vets.
The department told the Canadian Press that new veterans wouldn't be affected and that the savings would be found because of the "sad reality" that the number of Second World War and Korean War vets is declining.
The Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent, however, told Senators Wednesday the departments figures are incorrect because veterans aren't dying as fast at the department is projecting.
Casey said he's worried about these cuts but also the coming department cuts. Veterans Affairs, like all other government departments, agencies and Crown Corporations, faces another possible five or ten per cent cut as part of an overall government-wide spending review.
"It remains to be seen (what impacts the cuts will have), and that's why we need this study. They won’t tell us. They claim that it will not affect my riding, but I don't believe them. The Veterans Ombudsman doesn't believe them. That's why we want to bring them in front of the committee and ask them the hard questions," he said. "The department of Veterans Affairs has a payroll of $100 million a year, it is a key economic engine in my riding and in Prince Edward Island and I feel that it is seriously under threat and they won't give us the facts."
Casey said he's also certain the Conservatives' procedure strategists are trying to find ways to kill the committee's new study.
"I have no doubt that there are some great minds at work over on that side and those great minds are trying to think of every tactic in the book to try to reverse this decision of the committee," he said.
Since the House of Commons has returned to work, the Conservatives have repeatedly voted against unfavourable opposition motions, such as an NDP motion to study the effects of anticipated cuts to CBC/Radio-Canada or another NDP motion to study whether the G8 Legacy Fund was used for political purposes or if then Industry Minister Tony Clement acted unethically.
Sean Casey's Motion:
That the Committee suspends its current study on "commemorating veterans" and commence hearings into the impact of the recent decision by the Conservative government to cut over 200 million dollars from the Veteran Affairs department, and that the Committee specifically assess the impact these cuts will have on programs and services to our veterans and the impact these cuts will have on staff and, that the Committee report back its findings to the House.