Sol­diers short­changed: Sa­j­jan

De­fence min­is­ter pre­views gov­ern­ment’s new de­fence pol­icy

Kingston Whig-Standard - - NATIONAL - LEE BERTHIAUME

KINGSTON, Ont. — De­fence Min­is­ter Har­jit Sa­j­jan gave a first peek at the gov­ern­ment’s new de­fence pol­icy Thurs­day by an­nounc­ing tax breaks for all mil­i­tary per­son­nel and po­lice of­fi­cers de­ployed on ma­jor op­er­a­tions abroad.

He an­nounced this in a speech de­liv­ered dur­ing a grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony at the Royal Mil­i­tary Col­lege of Canada in which he lamented the treat­ment of mil­i­tary per­son­nel over the years.

Suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have failed to pro­vide the mil­i­tary with the re­sources needed to help and sup­port those in uni­form, he said, be­fore promis­ing the Lib­er­als’ new de­fence pol­icy would ad­dress the prob­lem.

“Canada’s new de­fence pol­icy must put those who serve at its core,” Sa­j­jan told the grad­u­at­ing class and hun­dreds of fam­ily mem­bers and mil­i­tary per­son­nel in at­ten­dance.

“It must do more than pay lip ser­vice to the fact that our peo­ple are our most im­por­tant ca­pa­bil­ity.”

Sa­j­jan has said the de­fence pol­icy up­date will be re­leased on June 7.

But first came the tax mea­sure, which will see the salaries of mil­i­tary per­son­nel and po­lice of­fi­cers sent over­seas on ma­jor op­er­a­tions ex­empted from fed­eral in­come tax for the du­ra­tion of their de­ploy­ments.

The move, retroac­tive to Jan. 1, 2017, ex­empts el­i­gi­ble salaries up to the pay level of lieu­tenant-colonel and is ex­pected to cost the fed­eral trea­sury about $85 mil­lion over the next five years.

It also ad­dresses what has been a thorny is­sue for the min­is­ter, af­ter some per­son­nel based in Kuwait pub­licly com­plained about a pol­icy change last fall that threat­ened to strip their tax-ex­empt sta­tus.

“When our men and women in uni­form de­ploy, they and their fam­i­lies make great sac­ri­fices, they and their fam­i­lies make great sac­ri­fices on our be­half,” Sa­j­jan said, spark­ing ap­plause from the crowd.

Con­ser­va­tive de­fence critic James Bezan, who had been press­ing the min­is­ter to ad­dress the con­cerns raised by those de­ployed to Kuwait, wel­comed the decision, de­spite the length of time it took to make.

“Those who put them­selves in harm’s away and sac­ri­fice time away from their loved ones should not be short­changed by their gov­ern­ment,” Bezan said in a state­ment.

The rest of Sa­j­jan’s speech on Thurs­day was largely a con­tin­u­a­tion of the mes­sage that the min­is­ter de­liv­ered in an ear­lier ad­dress to de­fence in­dus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives and ex­perts two weeks ago.

But while that ear­lier speech fo­cused on how years of un­der­fund­ing had left the mil­i­tary strug­gling to re­place aging equip­ment, the tar­get this time around was the ef­fect un­der­fund­ing has had on peo­ple. That in­cludes prob­lems with the re­cruit­ing sys­tem that have re­sulted in a short­age of per­son­nel in crit­i­cal ar­eas, Sa­j­jan said. The short­fall has left cur­rent ser­vice mem­bers over­stretched and in dan­ger of burnout.

Au­di­tor gen­eral Michael Fer­gu­son last year found the mil­i­tary was short more than 4,000 full-time, trained per­son­nel, while de­part­men­tal re­ports have shown the gap in re­serve mem­bers is even big­ger.

The min­is­ter also sin­gled out con­cerns about the ser­vices avail­able to ill and in­jured per­son­nel and the sys­tem for tran­si­tion­ing th­ese peo­ple to civil­ian life, which has be­come a source of con­stant com­plaints.

“Mak­ing the tran­si­tion to civil­ian life has been too hard and the frus­tra­tions and red tape, too nu­mer­ous,” Sa­j­jan said. “This is not the mes­sage of grat­i­tude gov­ern­ment should be send­ing troops at the end of their mil­i­tary ca­reers. We need a new ap­proach.”

Yet the min­is­ter’s speech stopped short of of­fer­ing any so­lu­tions to th­ese prob­lems, many of which have been known for years but re­main un­re­solved de­spite past prom­ises to fix them.

Sa­j­jan would only say that the de­fence pol­icy up­date rep­re­sented “a once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion op­por­tu­nity to get the gov­ern­ment’s end of the bar­gain right.”

Ex­pec­ta­tions are now sky-high for the new de­fence pol­icy, which Lib­eral min­is­ters have said will in­clude “sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ments” for the mil­i­tary while not pro­vid­ing any de­tails.

What re­mains un­clear is ex­actly how the gov­ern­ment will meet those ex­pec­ta­tions, given the size of the fed­eral deficit and sys­temic prob­lems such as a trou­bled pro­cure­ment sys­tem that has no easy fixes.

SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

De­fence Min­is­ter Har­jit Sa­j­jan re­sponds to a ques­tion in the House of Com­mons in Ottawa ear­lier this week. Sa­j­jan an­nounced on Thurs­day tax breaks for all mil­i­tary per­son­nel de­ployed on ma­jor op­er­a­tions abroad.

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