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Newfoundland MP Seamus O’Regan on Ottawa, equalization and Phoenix pay

Minister of Veterans Affairs and N.L. MP Seamus O'Regan is seen during an announcement at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa, Dec. 20.  – Canadian Press file
Minister of Veterans Affairs and N.L. MP Seamus O'Regan is seen during an announcement at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa, Dec. 20. – Canadian Press file

In 2018, minister for Veterans Affairs sees more work in wait times

The federal cabinet minister from Newfoundland and Labrador, Seamus O’Regan, is mindful of “the bubble.”

It’s a nickname for Ottawa and one the MP for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl has found to have some merit.

 

“It always is a battle, because you’re dealing with a lot of officials and bureaucrats who are situated in Ottawa or central Canada generally and you need to constantly remind them the rest of the country is not like you and we have very specific needs.”

MP Seamus O’Regan

In a year-end interview mid-December, he told The Telegram it’s easy to be sucked into disingenuous debates or partisan politics for the sake of it, if you’re not careful.

But there are real provincial and territorial differences for an MP to bring to the forefront.

“It always is a battle, because you’re dealing with a lot of officials and bureaucrats who are situated in Ottawa or central Canada generally and you need to constantly remind them the rest of the country is not like you and we have very specific needs,” he said.

O’Regan believes the current Liberal government has tried to be sensitive to the various regions, but said vigilance is still needed.

When talking about one-size national policy, he said he is thinking of things like changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act under the Conservative government and generally legislative changes affecting the offshore oil industry — part of the oil industry of Canada, but smaller than the onshore work in Alberta and thought of less.

 

Child benefit

In looking back at achievements, O’Regan said the Liberal Canada Child Benefit (CCB) ranks high on his list, in its first full year in 2017.

 

N.L. MP Seamus O’Regan says it’s hard to get Ottawa to look outside its “bubble.” “You need to constantly remind them the rest of the country is not like you,” he told The Telegram’s Ashley Fitzpatrick in a year-end interview. - Canadian Press file
N.L. MP Seamus O’Regan says it’s hard to get Ottawa to look outside its “bubble.” “You need to constantly remind them the rest of the country is not like you,” he told The Telegram’s Ashley Fitzpatrick in a year-end interview. - Canadian Press file

 

A non-taxable, monthly benefit launched in mid-2016, it replaced an old system (the Canada Child Tax Benefit and Universal Child Care Benefit). The CCB provides the most support to low-income families and assists families in covering the financial cost of raising children.

 

In his mid-year update, Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced an increase in the benefit, coming in 2018.

“That sort of policy really comes from listening to people and not just listening to what people are saying inside the bubble,” O’Regan said.

 

On equalization benefits

As reported, provincial Finance Minister Tom Osborne ended his year arguing for changes to federal equalization, saying the funding program is not responsive enough or fair to this province as it stands.

“Equalization it’s a tough nut to crack,” O’Regan said, when asked if he agreed with the position and changes in the funding formula.

Given the essence entrenched in the Constitution and that changes would require having all of the provinces at the table, he said he thinks it might be better to pursue other proposals for the feds to consider.

“It means (provincial MPs) have to get very, very creative and work hard and I’m determined to do both,” he said.

 

Pension for Life and wait times

The year-end interview was the week before O’Regan’s announcement of the new Pension for Life program for veterans, bringing back lifelong disability pensions.

As the Chronicle Herald reported, the pensions were abolished back in 2006, in favour of a lump-sum approach to benefits that could be paid out over time. A tax-free, monthly benefit is now possible again, along with a series of complex changes meant to provide more to permanently injured individuals.

The program will require legislative changes and could be expected to start in 2019.

But O’Regan was asked by The Telegram about wait times for veteran disability benefits. This followed a story from The Canadian Press on a backlog of benefit applications. According to the report, nearly one-third of the roughly 29,000 applications in the queue at the end of November had been there for more than 16 weeks.

The minister reiterated his disappointment, committing to work on wait times.

“It’s hard to make quick turns. You turn the wheel and eventually you get there, but it always takes too long. I like talking to people directly and when people are telling you they’ve got to wait eight months, six months in order to get things like disability benefits, that’s just — you think, ‘that’s not acceptable,’” he said.

Additional resources, including 460 more departmental staff, have been added to help.

But there have also been program improvements, O’Regan said, bringing more demand as people realize what is available. That’s added to the ongoing challenge.

“The problem is it’s tough for us to keep ahead of that demand and we’re not keeping ahead of that demand, and we have to. Because for each person who calls, trust me it’s not just a matter of  ‘I’ll call now and I’ll get that extra bit of money.’ For a lot of people there’s a tremendous amount of pride involved. You’re also talking about getting access to rehabilitative services that they need and that they’ve accepted that they need,” he said.

“And once people make that leap to ask for help, you don’t want to say, ‘OK we’ll talk to you again in four months or eight months.’ You want to be able to meet them right there and then. That’s a real passion of mine, because that’s what people deserve. And it’s not easy.”

 

On the Phoenix

O’Regan said Veterans Affairs is working on new apps, process and technology for its wait time issue.

Meanwhile, another issue at the top of his list — and that of other MPs, he said — is the federal government’s Phoenix pay system.

O’Regan said he hears from federal employees and constituents on the subject.

“It hurts me that they’re going through what they’re going through. Phoenix is incredibly frustrating,” he said.

He also said it was something recently retired MP Judy Foote threw her energy into trying to solve when it fell under her purview and now-Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough has more recently been on top of it.

At this point, Qualtrough is saying the system could be ‘stabilized’ by the end of 2018, or early 2019.

O’Regan said everyone wants the system back in order. Asked about wishes for the New Year, it’s where his thoughts landed.

“If I could make Phoenix work, if I could get people paid, if I could get rid of disability benefit wait lines at Veterans Affairs,” he said. “I’d be a happy man.”

 

ashley.fitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

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