Wednesday, 24 April 2013

It’s their fault: MacKay blames military for cut in danger pay for soldiers in Afghanistan

Defence Minister Peter MacKay diverted blame from himself to the military on Tuesday for being behind a decision to pay Canadian soldiers in northern Afghanistan less danger pay.

But opposition MPs are still questioning why MacKay doesn’t intervene to overrule the brass.

Opposition MPs kept up the pressure on the defence minister, questioning why Canadian troops serving in Mazar-i-Sharif are receiving less danger pay than other Canadian soldiers in that country.

But MacKay said neither he nor the Conservative government is to blame.

“It was as a result of a recommendation, a direction not taken by me, not taken by the government but taken upon the recommendation made, including (by) members of the armed forces themselves,” he said in the House of Commons.

But NDP defence critic Jack Harris said MacKay’s answer is ridiculous, considering he is supposed to be in charge of the department. “He seems more interested in deflecting blame from himself than doing something about the problem,” said Harris. “This is something he doesn’t seem to be able to or willing to do something about.”

In the Commons, MacKay accused Harris and the NDP of not supporting the Canadian Forces. He has also accused the Liberals of not supporting the troops, when that party’s MPs asked questions about the danger pay. Such accusations by MacKay are common when he can’t answer a question or when embarrassing issues are raised about the government, opposition party officials point out.

On Monday, MacKay’s office issued a statement on the danger pay issue, noting that “Our government will be asking department officials to re-examine their decision.”

Just hours after Postmedia News reported Canadian soldiers in northern Afghanistan were being forced to pay back danger pay they had previously been awarded, MacKay stepped in Monday to reverse that order. But MacKay’s intervention did not address the fact that the soldiers in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif were still getting a lower amount of danger pay than those Canadian soldiers in Kabul.

Some of the soldiers contacted Postmedia News to complain not only about the original rollback but the fact they were receiving less danger pay.

Monday’s announcement is the second time in this month that the Conservative government, stung by a public backlash over attempts to cut danger pay for Afghan troops, has reversed course, at least partially.

Northern Afghanistan has been relatively peaceful but over the last several years it has seen an increase in violence. In 2012 a suicide bomber killed a high-profile anti-Taliban politician and 22 other guests at a wedding reception.

In February, gunmen in Mazar-i-Sharif tried to assassinate a member of the Iranian consulate. In 2011, seven United Nations workers were killed in an attack in the city.

About 30 Canadian soldiers are in Mazar-i-Sharif, involved in training Afghan forces. Around 100 soldiers have worked at that location between June 1, 2012 and Feb. 3, 2013.

Neither MacKay nor Prime Minister Stephen Harper have explained why Canadian soldiers in Mazar-i-Sharif are getting a lesser amount of danger pay.

Opposition MPs say MacKay would have been told days in advance that in both this and an earlier case, the news media were asking questions about the danger pay cuts. But he waited to see public reaction to the news reports before doing anything, said Liberal defence critic John McKay.

The Defence Department has not provided details on what the rates of hazard and hardship pay were for Mazar-i-Sharif or Kabul-based soldiers.

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