Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to rise today on behalf of the constituents of Prince George--Peace River and as the official opposition senior national defence critic to respond to the government's Speech from the Throne, though perhaps respond is not the appropriate word in this case.
If one is a beef producer, struggling on the verge of bankruptcy as many are; a sawmill worker watching his or her industry waste away; or a proudly serving member of the Canadian Forces, there is not much to respond to in this Liberal pre-election document. These Canadians must be wondering if their federal government has forgotten their very existence.
I know the residents in my riding are feeling increasingly alienated from Ottawa. Throughout the past year, while the government was on hold waiting to crown its new leader, the current Prime Minister, the country has been in the midst of two devastating crises in the beef and softwood lumber industries. Also, throughout the past year, impartial military experts, both here in Canada and abroad, have intensified their decade long pleas to the federal government to rescue our armed forces from the brink of collapse.
There was little evidence that these crises even existed in the speech delivered by the Governor General last week. Perhaps the Prime Minister ran out of room. After all, he had to leave space in the speech to insert the word “new” no less than 31 times.
This was all part of his attempt to distance himself from his predecessor, Jean Chrétien, and to convince Canadians to forget that, as a former finance minister, he was one of the most powerful individuals at the cabinet table through most of the past decade. He was an active participant in the policies, legislation and decisions implemented by the federal government. He was even the one signing the cheques.
It was somewhat surprising that the Prime Minister, in the few words that he afforded the Canadian Forces, had the audacity to boast that he would be replacing the 40 year old antique Sea King helicopters. It was his government that cancelled the original contract to replace the maritime helicopters a decade ago. It was his government that prevented a new contract from be awarded when political considerations repeatedly stalled the procurement process.
It took 10 years just to get the request for proposals to supply new helicopters issued. The contract has still not been awarded. Complete delivery of the fleet of 28 choppers is not expected to be phased-in until 2010, five years later than the Liberals predicted. I am more than a little puzzled as to why the Prime Minister would want to draw this failure to the attention of Canadians in his throne speech.
The only other military commitment contained in the speech is also not new. The purchase of 66 Stryker vehicles is a recycled Jean Chrétien announcement. There is nothing new there, yet the new Prime Minister has claimed it as his own. The Strykers have been a controversial purchase from the very beginning as the wheeled vehicles are questionable at best as a replacement for our aging Leopard tanks.
However, I want to focus on what really matters in the debate surrounding military helicopters, tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery, planes, ships or any other piece of military equipment. I feel the government and some Canadians sometimes overlook one critical part of the equation, the human element.
These machines and technology that we are discussing are the tools which are supposed to safeguard the lives of the men and women that we as a nation send into dangerous situations to serve, protect and keep the peace. These are men and women with mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters. These are people who accept the risks and sacrifices of their vocation and are still willing to get the job done on our behalf.
These are people like Private Nathan Smith, Private Richard Green, Corporal Ainsworth Dyer and Sergeant Marc Léger, who died when a U.S. bomb was mistakenly dropped on their location during a training exercise in Afghanistan in April 2002.
These are people like Sergeant Robert Short, a father of two children and Corporal Robbie Beerenfenger, a father of three, who made the ultimate sacrifice last October when their Iltis vehicle drove over a landmine; and Corporal Jamie Murphy, who died just last month in an attack by a suicide bomber.
When we are debating military equipment, we are ultimately defending the military personnel whose lives depend upon that equipment. I strongly suspect that the Liberal government has failed to connect that equipment with the people it asks to serve in unstable, wartorn conditions, far from home and loved ones.
Before he became Prime Minister, the member for LaSalle—Émard unequivocally promised to ensure that Canadian soldiers were equipped with the best possible equipment. That is what he said when he was aspiring to be Prime Minister. Now that he has the job, he is frantically backpedalling on this promise. Were he truly serious about getting our troops the tools and the backup they need to do their jobs, he would not be using a wide-ranging defence and security review as an excuse to further delay new military purchases or to boost troop levels.
These so-called reviews and studies are what the government uses to avoid making decisions or taking a stand on critical issues. Increasingly, the government solution to evading difficult questions from the opposition benches and reporters is to initiate a review, an inquiry, or an audit, and then refuse to answer any potentially embarrassing questions. It is what government members use to help them balance as they sit on the fence.
What will the Prime Minister do about the actions of CSIS in the Maher Arar case and the RCMP raids on the home and office of an Ottawa Citizen journalist? We will not know until the report from a public inquiry is issued after the election.
What will the Prime Minister do about the issue of same sex marriages? We will not know until the Supreme Court responds to the additional legal question he just recently submitted to the court, a response that he knows cannot be possibly be completed until after the next election.
What is the Prime Minister's explanation for the $4 million discrepancy in federal funds that Canada Steamship Lines received when he was its owner? We will not know until the Auditor General responds to his request to check it out. And again, that will not be known until after the next election.
We are all well aware of the present scandal that has engulfed not only Parliament, not only this so-called new government, but indeed the entire nation where hundreds of millions of dollars were thrown away in Quebec on this sponsorship ad scandal. There will be another inquiry. It seems like there has been an inquiry a week ever since this Prime Minister took over.
Also included in the Auditor General's report was the question about the $100 million that the Liberal government decided upon within nine days of talking about it. After nine days Liberals spent $100 million on two luxury jets to transport the cabinet instead of allocating that money where it was needed which is to our armed forces.
What will the Prime Minister do to rebuild the Canadian Forces after his government slashed $20 billion in real cumulative dollars since 1993? We will not know until his defence and security review wraps up this fall, after the expected spring election.
Voters are being sent to the polls by the government without being told its position on critical federal legislation and policies, nor its explanation for questionable operations and funding allocations. The Liberals are betting on the fact that they will not have to answer for their actions until after they become comfortably situated in government for yet another term. This is a serious underestimation of the Canadian electorate.
Our troops have waited long enough for the government to figure out what it is doing. In fact, many say that it is already too late. Regular force personnel strength has fallen by about 30% over the past decade. Senior commanders have told the Prime MInister that they will not have any more personnel to spare. The 2,000 soldiers sent to Afghanistan and the ongoing commitment in Bosnia has left our army exhausted and depleted. Rotations home have been deferred and training delayed.
I want to make it clear that the men and women who serve in the Canadian Forces are not reluctant to do their jobs. On the contrary, in speaking to them, I have learned that our soldiers are more than eager for opportunities to put their skills and training to work in service of their country. That is what they signed up to do.
Yet, it is not an easy job and I would argue it is not made any easier by the government. Enforcing peace and security around the world in wartorn countries is physically and mentally demanding work. Our troops require time between missions to rebuild their strength and to constantly develop their skills through more training.
Canadian troops have been deployed on over 70 missions in the past 10 years, more than in the previous four decades combined. This burden is being carried out by fewer and fewer personnel, equipped with helicopters and medium transport aircraft that are 40 years old, 35-year-old logistical supply ships, 33-year-old destroyers, grounded Hercules transport aircraft and rusted out dune buggies for patrolling the desert badlands.
It came as somewhat of a surprise to our soldiers last week when they watched their new Prime Minister announce on national television that 500 troops would remain in Afghanistan after the current mission ends there in August of this year.
If he was serious about this commitment, the Prime Minister has failed to recognize the dire shortage of personnel and resources. If it was simply a flippant commitment made for the benefit of television, then the Prime Minister was being irresponsible and insensitive to our dedicated and overworked soldiers.
When the head of Canada's army retired after 39 years of service last May, he told us of his worries about the future. Lieutenant-General Mike Jeffrey said at that time:
I cannot help but have a growing sense of concern over the challenges that this nation faces and the army's ability--indeed, the Canadian Forces' ability--to meet them. The world has changed, and I'm not sure we're keeping pace. We are participating, there is no question of that. But are we really playing our part? Do we want to make a difference, or do we just want to ensure our flag is present? In the final analysis, our military is too small to allow Canada to play the kind of role it should on the world stage. The soldiers are paying the bills with their service, with their health and sometimes with their lives. Our military is as stressed as it has ever been and I fear that it will not be able to continue at this pace for much longer.
The man who replaced Lieutenant-General Jeffrey obviously had to be a bit more diplomatic at the time, but even he could not help point out how the government has let down the men and women of the forces. On the day he took over as new army chief, Lieutenant-General Rick Hillier stated:
Our soldiers do magnificent work; they do it without complaint and they give Canada great service. I'd like Canada to support them just a little bit better.
For 10 years the government has failed to produce a defence policy paper. In that time, the official opposition has completed two such documents. We compiled these comprehensive positions on national defence by listening to military officials, past and present, and experts on international security affairs around the world. The unanimous conclusion, no matter whom one asks, is that the Canadian Forces simply do not have enough personnel both in the regular force and in the reserves.
Last December Queen's University and the Conference of Defence Associations released the findings of its study entitled “Canada Without Armed Forces”. It was a thorough and impartial report. It was also very blunt about the state of the Canadian Forces. It stated:
Two essential components are specifically in danger today: there are simply not enough trained people, or the facilities and resources to train them, to ensure that the Canadian Forces will be operationally fit in the future. Second, major equipment is failing from age and use, and the plans to replace it are inadequate to the demand.
The study went further and concluded that:
The crisis caused by wilful disarmament is upon the nation and threatens the country's hard-won and honourable place in the international community of like-minded nations. Canada's sovereignty...is increasingly unsure.
The Queen's University study concluded that the Canadian Forces regular personnel strength should be increased to 85,000. This reflects what the official opposition concluded in our own defence policy paper. We also advocated that the reserve force be increased to 60,000.
As for the men and women who currently serve, I am continually amazed at their dedication and motivation despite the lack of support they receive from this government, to whom morale appears to have little meaning.
Funding to put more troops in the field cannot be spared, but an internal study by the Department of National Defence itself found that its headquarters here in Ottawa was bloated with about 1,000 more bureaucrats than needed. That is half the number of soldiers currently serving in Kabul, Afghanistan. It is estimated that by cutting those 1,000 bureaucrats, NDHQ would save as much as $70 million, money that could and should be used for operations.
Aside from denying our troops the equipment they need to do their jobs, and additional personnel, the government consistently fails to give the men and women of the armed forces the respect they deserve. I will give the House two recent examples of this neglect.
When soldiers serving in Afghanistan asked to learn the results of medical and environmental air quality tests in Kabul last year, their request was refused. Senior officials in Ottawa dismissed their worries that the fecal-contaminated air could cause short term and long term health problems. Instead of taking their concerns seriously, senior brass suggested that sharing this vital health information with soldiers could launch another gulf war syndrome.
I would like to commend military ombudsman André Marin and the military's medical staff for overcoming the resistance of military commanders by insisting that troops in Afghanistan be privy to test results that had a direct bearing on their personal health.
It is in both the soldiers' and the military's best interests to investigate and share such medical information so that if medical problems arise in the future, factors such as air quality can be either included or excluded as the cause. Regardless, it should never have been an issue. Soldiers should have been immediately provided this information in order to reassure themselves and their families and loved ones about their long term health.
Like any other employer, the Canadian military cannot be permitted to deny information about health risks to its employees. Then again, this is not the only situation where the government has used its special status to disregard the health and safety of our soldiers and their families.
What happens when the government is both the employer and the landlord? We just need to ask the many men and women and families living in military housing units throughout the country. Let me say that not many members of the House would be willing to live in many of the private married quarters on Canadian Forces bases across the country.
Imagine paying rent for a house or an apartment that is so poorly insulated that a family's food freezes in the cupboards in the winter. Imagine the risk to children's health from black mould growing on the walls. Imagine the water smelling of sewage, which people must boil before drinking.
The Canadian Forces Housing Authority oversees military housing units on the government's behalf. With any other landlord, a renter would be protected from appalling living conditions under provincial landlord-tenant legislation, but the Government of Canada does not have to comply with such provincial housing laws. Instead, not only have personnel living on base had to endure these conditions, but they are now being hit with a $100 monthly rent increase each year.
The life of a soldier is no nine to five job. Most are on call 24 hours a day. Proximity to their base is critical. They must uproot their families every few years to wherever they are asked to serve. They are deployed for months at a time, leaving their spouses and their children behind. Often, the community on a military base is the only source of emotional and practical support for these families. The housing that is supposed to facilitate their lives is often a substandard health and safety hazard.
Last fall, I helped initiate a petition campaign demanding that CFHA discontinue these exorbitant rent increases, at least until it had made significant repairs to its military housing units. So far this issue seems to have fallen on deaf ears in the government.
I know my time is short. I have more that I would like to say, but let me conclude by stating that this so-called new Prime Minister appears to be picking up where his predecessor left off when it comes to support of the Canadian Forces. He appears to be just continuing on, making our soldiers, their families and all Canadians pay the price for his government's lack of direction in national defence and foreign policy and its lack of support for the Canadian Forces.