Budget promises to boost DND spending in two years, opposition scornful

Prime Minister Stephen Harper (left) stands with Finance Minister Joe Oliver as he arrives to table the budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - The Harper government is promising to spend more on the day-to-day-upkeep of the military, but the cash does not kick in for two years and is short of what the parliamentary budget office says is necessary to maintain the status quo.

The new federal budget also confirms previously announced improvements to veterans benefits and programs — $1.6 billion in spending booked in the last fiscal year in order to avoid a deficit this year.

Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s fiscal plan, released Tuesday, sets aside $11.8 billion over 10 years to increase the baseline defence appropriation beginning in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

At that time, National Defence will see a $184-million increase and the cash ramps up gradually to $2.3 billion by 2026-27.

The parliamentary budget office, however, warned a few weeks ago that the Conservatives need to spend up to $3 billion extra a year in order to keep the existing military.

The budget also sets aside a one-time, $360.3 million payment this year for the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and an additional $7.1 million for the recently announced mission to train the Ukrainian army.

“Our government understands the present dangers — and is determined to respond responsibly, without ambiguity or moral equivocation,” Oliver said in his budget speech to the Commons.

In recent weeks, Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole has announced a series of initiatives to care for ex-soldiers, including a retirement benefit for soldiers without a military pension, a fund to help the caregivers of wounded veterans and more staff to handle cases and process claims.

The budget reflects all of those initiatives, but shows they were paid for in the fiscal year that ended on March 31, 2015. That decision contributed to last year’s deficit, but also helped keep the Conservative promise of a surplus this year.

The Conservatives have been under pressure, most notably at last fall’s NATO summit, to increase defence spending, but analyst Dave Perry, of the Canadian Foreign Affairs and Defence Institute, says the impact of Oliver’s funding increase will be small.

It just begins to make up for the $2.1 billion that was stripped from the military’s annual budget during the battle to rein in the deficit.

“So, they’re essentially starting from a hole and this is going to provide some moderate, year-over-year help to get them where they need to be to keep the forces they have,” he said. “But it’s not actually going to close the gap that’s emerged over the last couple of years.”

That means the next government will face tough choices and possibly have to cut either the number of troops or planned equipment purchases, Perry said.

The last federal budget removed $3 billion in planned spending on ships, planes and vehicles with the promise it would be spent in future years, but there is no sign of that in the budget or in the multi-year projections tabled Tuesday.

Come this fall, the Conservatives are expected to campaign as champions of the military, but Perry says the budget demonstrates that their record is mixed.

“It’s fair to say they championed them for three years” between 2007-10, Perry said. “Since then, defence has been treated like any other department and faced a period of austerity. It doesn’t appear that age of austerity has ended.”

NDP defence critic Jack Harris said the budget strains the government’s credibility.

“They’re clearly kicking the problems, the issues and the decision-making down the road to the next government,” Harris said.

Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray said the dearth of near-term defence spending is unforgivable when the country faces a hot war in the Middle East and an emerging cold war in eastern Europe.

“The idea that Canadians can trust this government when it comes to defence is a myth,” she said.

The budget also contains $23 million to improve security on military bases across the country — a direct response to events last October when two Canadian soldiers were murdered by homegrown extremists.

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© The Canadian Press, 2015

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