Election 2015: military policy a battleground

From veterans care to the long-awaited F-35 stealth fighter, parties pitch their approaches to the Canadian Forces

A rundown navy, aging fighter jets and closing of dedicated Veterans’ Affairs offices are playing a central role in the campaign for the Oct. 19 federal election.

The Conservative government has been in a running battle with the Public Service Alliance of Canada over the closure of nine regional Veterans Affairs offices, including those in Prince George and Kelowna. The union ran TV ads with veterans describing difficulty getting mental and physical health support.

Veterans’ Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole wrote to PSAC national president Robyn Benson in July, calling the ads “intentionally misleading.” He said the government is opening 27 dedicated mental health clinics, training staff on veterans programs in integrated Service Canada offices, and continuing to spend more on support for veterans as their numbers decline.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair promises to reopen the nine dedicated offices, and add $454 million over four years to Veterans Affairs. The NDP says the money would go to improving long-term care, survivor pensions, mental health treatment and expansion of the program to support veterans in their homes.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has announced that if he becomes prime minister, he will pull Canada out of the development of the U.S.-led F-35 fighter project, which has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. Trudeau said the F-35’s stealth, first-strike abilities are not what Canada needs, and other fighters would serve Canada’s purposes at lower cost.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper noted it was the previous Liberal government that committed Canada to join Australia, Britain and other countries in supporting the F-35, and withdrawing would be a severe blow to the country’s aerospace industry.

With six of the Royal Canadian Airforce’s 30-year-old CF-18 fighter-bombers taking part in a U.S.-led mission against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, the Liberals and NDP are calling for Canada to focus on humanitarian relief instead of combat.

The Royal Canadian Navy, another traditional name restored by the Conservatives, is awaiting new ships from the Conservatives’ $26 billion shipbuilding program, Canada’s largest ever. Some contracts have been awarded to Seaspan, B.C.’s largest shipyard, which is also building new research vessels for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

HMCS Protecteur, the navy’s only West Coast supply ship, was decommissioned after a 2014 fire off Hawaii. Protecteur was built in Halifax 46 years ago, and is being temporarily replaced by a former U.S. Navy ship on loan from Chile. Replacements for Protecteur and its East Coast equivalent HMCS Preserver, also retired, are expected to take six more years.

Veterans Affairs Canada spending graph, July 2015.

Surrey North Delta Leader

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