OTTAWA — When he was named Friday as Canada’s latest minister of veterans affairs, Lawrence MacAulay was given the difficult task of sweetening the Trudeau government’s relations with embittered veterans and selling the Liberals’ controversial pension plan for those injured in uniform.
MacAulay’s move to veterans affairs from the Agriculture Department, where he had been for the past three years, was part of a mini-cabinet shuffle prompted by Jody Wilson-Raybould’s sudden resignation from the portfolio after only a few weeks in the job.
The move comes at a critical time for veterans and the Liberals, who enjoyed strong support from former service members in the last election but are now facing widespread anger and frustration from the community ahead of this year’s vote.
That frustration is fed by the fact MacAulay is the fifth person to hold the veterans-affairs portfolio in less than four years under the Liberals, counting Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s temporary assignment after Wilson-Raybould’s resignation.
“What it has sent as a message is that the veterans portfolio hasn’t been a priority, that our veterans themselves have not been a priority to the government,” said Virginia Vaillancourt, national president of the Union of Veterans’ Affairs Employees. “And he’s going to have a lot of relationships to mend and fix due to the constant turnover that we’ve seen in the minister’s role.”
MacAulay’s appointment Friday was met with some extremely cautious optimism given his past role in the 1990s as secretary of state for veterans affairs under Jean Chretien and the fact the longtime MP is from P.E.I., where Veterans Affairs Canada is headquartered.
Yet there were also questions about whether he is simply a placeholder given that the next election is only a few months away — and whether he will actually be able to address the veteran community’s numerous concerns and grievances.
In an interview with The Canadian Press before he flew to P.E.I. Friday, MacAulay said his plan is to sit down and take a close look at “what’s there, what’s been done and what can be done better for veterans.”
Yet he also defended the Trudeau government’s record, saying “it’s kind of a shame” if veterans feel the Liberals have been ignoring them or have broken promises to the community since taking office.
“My understanding is that what we indicated we would do we are doing or in the process of doing,” MacAulay said, citing the re-opening of several Veterans Affairs offices closed by the Conservatives and the introduction of a new pension plan as examples.
“I think you’d find there’s a lot of veterans who are quite pleased with what’s taken place.”
Yet that pension plan, in particular, has been anything but well received — as MacAulay is likely to find out.
The federal Liberals promised during the last election to reinstate a lifelong disability pension after many veterans complained the lump-sum payment and other benefits that replaced it in 2006 were far less generous.
While the pledge was widely interpreted as a promise to bring back the pre-2006 pension system, the Trudeau government instead introduced its own version that will come into effect on April 1, which many veterans have described as a betrayal.
An analysis by the parliamentary budget office last week found the Liberals’ so-called Pension for Life plan is not only less generous than the pre-2006 pension, but will provide less financial compensation to the most severely injured veterans than even the current system does.
“(MacAulay) has to do more than just verbiage. He has to come back with some specific proposals to address the inequity,” said Brian Forbes, chairman of the National Council of Veteran Associations, which represents more than 60 veteran groups across Canada.
“I truly believe that if he doesn’t do something along those lines, then the election has to be impacted at least to some extent by the fact that many veterans will either stay home or vote into another party. They’re not going to get that grandiose support they got in 2015.”
There have also been concerns about the long delays and obstacles many veterans continue to face getting services and benefits, which Royal Canadian Legion dominion president Brad White said “has to be cleaned up.”
One of the key questions, however, is how much room — and money — MacAulay will have to manoeuvre before the writ is dropped given that the federal budget will be unveiled in less than three weeks and many of its measures have already been nailed down.
“So things are pretty well set,” White said. “I’m not going to say in stone. But I think it’s pretty well set for the rollout of the budget.”
— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press