Mr. Speaker, I am pleased and honoured to rise and discuss economic action plan or budget 2014. At the outset, I will say I am going to be sharing my time with my hon. colleague from Calgary Centre.
It may come as no surprise to members who know me that I am going to be discussing veterans' issues as related to this budget specifically, and veterans' issues more broadly.
The new veterans charter was passed in 2005 by the previous Liberal government, and good on it for doing that. It passed with 100% support from the House, from every member of every party. In 2006, our government implemented it, again supported by all veterans' organizations. In 2011, it was updated by our government, not with entire support from across the floor, but that is okay; we got it done. With economic action plan 2014 or budget 2014, the new veterans charter would be updated again.
As many know, we are also doing a comprehensive review of the new veterans charter in the veterans affairs committee, and it will be updated again after that. It is a work in progress, as it should be. Is it a perfect document, a perfect plan? No, that plan has not been invented yet, and that is why it has to be continually updated, as it is being in economic action plan 2014; to the point that even the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore, on many occasions, has pointed out that the new veterans charter is in fact superior to the old pension plan, given that we all agree it needs to be continuously updated.
In this economic action plan, there are additional measures to honour the sacrifices made by veterans and their families and to facilitate the transition to civilian life and provide better access to services.
We are expanding the eligibility to funeral and burial programs to ensure that modern-day veterans of modest means have access to a dignified funeral and burial. In economic action plan 2013, we added $65 million over two years and raised the amount available to such a veteran to $7,376 from $3,600 plus the cost of the plot. In economic action plan 2014, we are adding a further $108.2 million over three years, starting in 2013-2014, to expand eligibility for those veterans of modest means. That includes eliminating some of the items that had inflated the amount of their assets, which would have eliminated their ability to participate in the program. That is changing.
In this budget, we are also committing to commemorating the Afghan mission. I can tell members that the highlight of my time in Parliament will be the time I spent in Afghanistan with the troops on numerous occasions. It has been the longest military engagement in Canada's history, and it certainly deserves to be commemorated properly, mainly for the 158 Canadian soldiers plus 5 civilians who lost their lives, and the families who suffered, not just those who suffered the loss of a member but those who suffered through the injury to family members or just the stress of having family members in a theatre of war. As I said, the highlight of my career in Parliament will be the time spent in Afghanistan, waking up on Christmas morning in an outpost somewhere in the boondocks of the Panjwai with those incredibly remarkable Canadians who went back there time after time, some of them, to help people whom they will never meet again and had never met before. There was nothing in it for them other than doing what was right.
I mentioned this before in a previous speech, but I will talk about the kind of people they are and the determination they have to do good. In the last Edmonton rotation a couple of years ago, in the combat mission, there were nine soldiers going back to Afghanistan for the fourth time. The commander of Land Force Western Area, who was a friend of mine, talked to me about having a personal interview with each of them just to ensure their heads were on straight, so to speak. He said he was talking to this one young master corporal and he asked him, “What is your biggest concern about going back to Afghanistan for the fourth time?” He said the soldier looked him in the eye and said, “That you will not let me go, sir”. Whereupon, the commander said, “You are okay; get out of here”. In fact, I wound up talking to that soldier with a bunch of others at the airport a couple of days later when they were leaving and, not knowing it was him, I recounted my conversation with the general. He stepped forward and said, “That was me, sir”. I shook his hand and thanked him very much and wished him good luck.
As we have said before, we are introducing priority hiring for veterans. We are going to change the Public Service Employment Act and the public service employment regulations to cater to the fact that there are 7,600 men and women who leave the Canadian Armed Forces every year. In round numbers, 1,000 of those leave for medical reasons beyond their control.
We are creating a statutory hiring priority in the Public Service Employment Act for Canadian Armed Forces members medically released for service-related reasons and extending the duration of their entitlements from two years to five years, giving them more time to adjust and more time to prepare themselves for employment in the public service, if that is what they wish to do.
We are also amending the Public Service Employment Act to give preference to eligible veterans in external public service job competitions and allowing Canadian Armed Forces personnel with more than three years' service to participate in internal public service job competitions.
We want to give our men and women in uniform every opportunity to transition to the public service, if that is what they want, or to other areas in the private sector.
We will be providing better access to online services to the tune of about $2.1 million in 2014-15 to improve the My VAC Account, to enhance the ability to do routine business with Veterans Affairs Canada. This is intended to mimic in-person services.
Online services do not cater to everybody. A lot of the older veterans may not be as tech savvy as some of the younger folks, and there are other ways in which we are trying to cater to them. However, this targets the largest and fastest growing segment of the veteran population. It is just another example of our trying to keep ahead of change, instead of being dragged along by change.
On veterans issues more broadly, they are all budget related because they have related to past budgets and hopefully, in my view, future budgets. One thing we need to understand is that the aim of the veterans affairs programs is not lifelong financial dependence. It is based on giving veterans the opportunity to retrain, rehabilitate, and get on with their own lives under their own terms.
A lot of these men and women are very young. Some are in their 20s and they have a long time ahead of time. The last thing that almost anybody would want to do is to sit there and be financially dependent. We want to honour their spirit to get out and do that. We want to help them in every way we can.
There is an awful lot of misinformation out there. Most of it is based on emotion. The notion that we “give them a lump sum and kick them to the curb” is absolutely false, and frankly it is shameful when people keep bringing that up.
All MPs on all sides of this House care deeply about our veterans and the men and women in uniform, notwithstanding what we might hear in the media or from the opposition or the unions. I do not blame them. The media relies on conflict to make stories, and I get that. The opposition's job is to oppose, and I get that. The union's job is to advocate for union jobs, and I get that.
However, people should understand that and maybe not take everything from anybody, government or anybody else. People should not take everything at face value. They should understand that the media, opposition, union, and government are all operating in their own interest. They should look at all the facts.
I have done a number of veterans events, and all I ask is that we look at all the facts. We can disagree about facts. That is okay, as long as we are doing it respectfully, rationally, and with all the facts on the table, not cherry-picking facts and building a case around that.
The broad range of veterans' benefits is very comprehensive and, yes, it is very complex. It should be simpler. We have had different things added, one on top of the other, for many years. I understand that there is confusion about what is available and how to access it. We do need to make that simpler, and I will talk about that more in a minute.
There is a broad range of benefits available, and I do not have time to go over all of them. There is a broad range of facilities now available.
What I will say is there are challenges, and I firmly acknowledge that. We have challenges of access, which we are working on; challenges of burden of proof; challenges transferring information from one department to another, DND to VAC. The forms are too complex, but we are working on making them simpler. It needs to be faster, with more one-stop service and more online options that cater to the changing demographics. We need improved wait times and stronger partnerships with DND and others.
The bottom line and the question we have to answer is this: are the Veterans Affairs programs a success? Yes, they are. Are they a failure? In some respects, yes, and we are working on those. Are they a work in progress? Absolutely, they are a work in progress, and that is what we have to keep doing. With the co-operation of people on all sides of the House and people outside the House, we will make that happen.