Better military, RCMP survivor's pensions would carry $6.3B price tag, budget watchdog says

The Parliamentary Budget Office says legislation to improve the survivor's pensions for the families of military and RCMP members would cost taxpayers $6.3 billion. But a veteran's advocates says the private member's bill — put forward by the NDP — is a sign the Liberals are directionless on the issue.

Proposed NDP private member's bill would boost benefits to families

An NDP private-member's bill that would increase survivor benefits for military and RCMP families would come with a hefty price tag, the Parliamentary Budget Office says. (CBC)

A private member's bill intended to ease the burden on families of deceased military and RCMP members comes with a hefty price tag, according to a new report by the country's budget watchdog.

Legislation proposed by NDP veterans critic Irene Mathyssen — to increase the allowance for survivors and children — would cost the federal treasury a staggering $6.3 billion.

The jaw-dropping cost for something not associated with direct care has veterans advocate Sean Bruyea saying politicians have been reduced to throwing spaghetti at the wall in order to improve the lives of ex-soldiers.

Private member's bills rarely become law, but Bruyea said it's a sign that the politically sensitive file is adrift and in desperate need of strategic direction.

NDP MP asked for review

Mathyssen's proposed legislation was tabled in the House of Commons last June as MPs were getting ready for their summer break.

The Parliamentary Budget Office was asked to examine the financial impact of the proposal on both the Canadian Forces and RCMP pension plans.
NDP veterans critic Irene Mathyssen asked the Parliamentary Budget Office to cost out her plan to increase survivor's benefits for RCMP and military families. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The biggest hit — $5 billion — would be on the future pension liability of the military's regular force fund, while the Mounties would absorb $1.3 billion of the overall total.

Mathyssen is proposing survivors get 70 per cent of their member's annual annuity — up from the current 50 per cent.

It certainly seems like a significant chunk of money.- NDP MP Irene Mathyssen

"Because the survivor benefit is now being raised to 70 per cent, significantly more funds will have to be paid from this plan to accommodate the increased benefit," said the budget office report, released Wednesday.

"One key cost driver is the fact that the survivor benefit is being raised to 70 per cent, which is in excess of the two-thirds lifetime benefit as defined under the Income Tax Act."

The review was requested by Mathyssen, who conceded sticker shock may make it "more difficult" to move the legislation forward, but she added it's important the public have this kind of information ahead of the potential debate.

"It certainly seems like a significant chunk of money," she said in an interview, "but survivors have been waiting for this for a long time, and it's important there be a sufficient benefit to ensure these families are not short-changed and they live in dignity."

Challenge to Liberals

Private member's bills live and die at the discretion of the government, and Mathyssen said she sees the legislation as a challenge to the governing Liberals, whose spring budget enriched veterans disability awards and allowances by $5.6 billion over six years.

Even with the cash injection, there are still unfulfilled Liberal promises, notably a return to lifetime pensions, as opposed to lump sum compensation, for mental and physical wounds sustained in the line of duty.

No one is asking how all of this money fits into the overall picture.- Sean Bruyea, veterans advocate

Mathyssen said her message to the government is simple: "Pony up. You had a lot to say during the election campaign."

The Liberals didn't promise last year to increase the survivor's allowance. They did pledge greater access to education, counselling, and training for families who are providing care to the ill and injured.

Money not always the answer

But Bruyea said money is not the only indicator of well-being for veterans and he's been left asking — particularly in light of all of the Liberal promises — whether lives are being made better.

Sean Bruyea, a retired Royal Canadian Air Force captain, is a veterans advocate. (CBC)

"No one is asking how all of this money fits into the overall picture," he said. "We need a public dialogue. The public likely won't authorize more money until they know what it's for and whether it's doing any good."

Andrew Bernardo, who served as a policy adviser under the Conservatives, has also made similar arguments in public.

Last winter in an interview with The Canadian Press, he said one of the most frustrating aspects of that party's tenure was an absence of data to make informed decisions within Veterans Affairs, particularly on rehabilitation programs.