Liberals look to buy peace with veterans
Frustrated veterans took to Parliament Hill Thursday saying the Liberals are on their last warning. “They need to return to lifelong pensions or their credibility with the veteran community will die,” said retired major Mark Campbell, who lost both legs in Afghanistan.
The words will have raised hairs on the back of Liberal necks.
No group has the power to inflict damage on a sitting government in as devastating a fashion as irate veterans — as former Conservative minister Julian Fantino would testify. His career never recovered after he turned up late for a meeting with veterans and then stormed out when he was told he was talking “hogwash.”
The Tories were never more derided than after the story broke that one double amputee said he was forced to prove to Veterans Affairs that his limbs hadn’t grown back. The story riled people not normally moved by politics.
“It makes me sick and I think I’m voting Liberal,” said one caller to CHEZ 106FM in Ottawa, whose listeners normal associate progressive ideas with Pink Floyd.
The Liberals entered office with a finely developed sense of self- preservation and immediately attempted to ingratiate themselves with veterans.
Kent Hehr was appointed minister — the idea apparently being that a man in a wheelchair would be more likely to form empathetic relationships with wounded soldiers.
Money was thrown at the problem — lots of money. In fact, one in four of the new dollars spent by this government in its first two budgets was on veterans — a total of $ 6.3 billion. Last April, when a new benefit enhancement was being implemented, $ 500 million was spent in one day.
Yet the largesse generated little positive coverage and did not prevent veterans advocates arriving in Ottawa this week, warning the Liberals that they might soon get the same treatment as that meted out to the Conservatives.
So why has the veterans issue bubbled up again?
For one thing, the Liberals are continuing to fight as defendants in the Equitas class action lawsuit, in which they maintain that the federal government has no legal obligation to its ex-soldiers.
For another, the election pledge to re- establish lifelong pensions as an option for injured veterans remains unfulfilled.
In the last budget, the Liberals said they were developing these pensions and would announce details this calendar year.
It seems the presence of veterans on the Hill was a reminder that they expect the promise to be honoured.
It is understood that the promise soon will be — and it is expected to cost further billions, giving younger veterans like Mark Campbell the option of receiving tax- free monthly payments for the rest of his life, rather than a lump sum, capped at $360,000, that is on offer under the new veterans charter brought in with all- party parliamentary support in 2005.
The B.C. Court of Appeal has not yet ruled in the Equitas court action — perhaps in the hope that the grievances raised may be addressed by government policy.
The plaintiffs can be forgiven for their anger at government duplicity in the case — Liberal MPs joined their colleagues from other parties in voting for a House of Commons motion affirming the government’s moral, social, legal and fiduciary obligation to veterans. Yet lawyers later disputed any “duty of care” principle, arguing the motion should not bind the federal government.
No amount of money can compensate someone like Campbell, whose family was traumatized by him losing his legs to an IED in Afghanistan in 2008.
As he has described it, his 11- year- old son saw “his superhero” left without legs; his wife was driven to a nervous breakdown by the “betrayal” by the Canadian government.
The return to a lifelong monthly pension plan will go a long way to restoring the social contract between Canada and the men and women it sends into harm’s way. The happy coincidence from the Liberal perspective is that the best part of $ 10 billion will likely buy them peace with a group that has brought previous governments to their knees.
Afghanistan veteran and retired major Mark Campbell, right, joins a group of veterans on Parliament Hill on Thursday. No group has the power to inflict damage on a government like irate veterans, writes John Ivison.