Liberals and NDP stymied in attempts to find out where defence budget axe falls

OTTAWA – Opposition attempts to shed light on spending cuts at National Defence were met by lawyerly objections from Conservative members of the House of Commons committee charged with overseeing the military.

Government MPs, led by junior defence minister Chris Alexander, tried to limit the scope of questions put to Defence Minister Peter MacKay by New Democrats and Liberals to a table of supplementary budget documents.

Both opposition parties were stymied in their efforts to find out precisely what is being cut and how the department will meet its budget targets.

MacKay assured them the budget was shipshape, and that Defence wouldn’t be asking for any more cash over and above the $19 billion it expects to spend this year.

The department is holding the line, MacKay said, even though Defence faced increased costs for some equipment projects and payouts to injured soldiers for ending the clawback on their pensions.

“We have identified ways to meet these specific funding needs through decreases in spending in other areas of National Defence and reallocations of previously approved budgetary resources,” he said.

But when opposition members tried to probe planned cuts, or ask why certain projects were not being funded, they were told it was outside the field of what the all-party committee met to discuss.

The chairman supported those arguments.

The tactic frustrated both the Liberals and the NDP, who tried to force through a motion that called on Defence to co-operate with parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, who has demanded to see details from each department of the Harper government’s planned cuts.

“It just seems we’ve got money moving around with no one knowing exactly how much is going where,” said NDP defence critic Jack Harris.

“The whole object seems to be to limit the amount of information this committee and parliamentarians get, and hence (what) the public gets. There’s something very wrong with that.”

Liberal defence critic John McKay described the committee as being lost in “fog.”

He pointed to the minister’s announcement a few weeks ago that defence would spend $11 million more on the mental health of soldiers.

“So where did that 11 million bucks come from?” McKay asked. “It was reprofiled. Did it come out of trucks? Did it come out of procurement?”

A spokesman for the defence minister said the cash for mental health came from a line item known as the cost move budget — a $408 million fund that has been declared surplus.

A few weeks ago, a leaked letter detailed how Prime Minister Stephen Harper had told MacKay last spring that his initial budget proposals did not cut deep enough on the administrative side of National Defence.

The three-page June 2012 letter, obtained by The Canadian Press, underlined the divide between Harper’s office and National Defence, which has become increasingly resolved to protect the budget gains of the last five years.

Harper set out what cuts he was prepared to accept, what wouldn’t work, and even suggested National Defence unload some of its surplus property.

Questions about the leaked letter and a major transformation report were considered by the majority Conservative members on the committee to be out of order.

Earlier this fall, a defence researcher analyzed the Harper government’s budget statements and concluded that the hit on military would be greater than previously thought, running as deep as $2.5 billion by 2014.

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