Editorial: Conservative legacy includes neglect of ailing vets, voter suppression

At a time when Canada is flexing its military muscle by participating in the bombing of ISIS positions in Syria, it is shocking and unacceptable to learn how this government is treating our veterans.

First, we learned that, at a time when returning soldiers are crying out for treatment for various mental disorders, Veterans’ Affairs failed to use its full budget of $1.13 billion over seven years. And the money went back into the general fund so the Conservatives could claim to be solid fiscal managers who can balance the budget and offer goodies in an election year.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s response – that it is standard practice to over-estimate expenditures in all departments and to have reserve funds – makes a mockery of desperate complaints from those who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan, that they need urgent treatment for the often delayed psychological impact of their role in high-tension conflicts. These include hyper-awareness anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and clinical depression.

Fact: According to the Defence Department, 160 personnel have committed suicide in the decade ending March 31, compared to 138 soldiers killed in combat over 12 years of the Afghan Mission. Would more rapid assessment and treatment of psychological issues have diminished that sad number?

Conveniently, a few days after the failure to use budgeted funds was uncovered by an enterprising journalist, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino was absent from the House of Commons when the auditor-general report was released. The former Toronto police chief is notoriously short-tempered and a poor communicator. The report said, “Overall, we found that Veterans Affairs Canada is not adequately facilitating timely access to mental health services.” A rehabilitation program does exist, but access to the Disability Benefits Program, through which most veterans access mental health services, is slow, the application process is complex, and delays in obtaining assessments may jeopardize a veteran’s stabilization and/or recovery, the audit said.

It was only after the failure to spend the $1.13 billion was revealed that the embarrassed Conservatives suddenly announced $200 million in new funding for mental health in the military. In PR circles, it’s called damage control. Where were the compassion, the understanding, and the duty to be fair and just in this government when veterans and their associations were crying out for help?

What we got was obfuscation, cover-up, and distortions. Being a Harper Conservative, however, means never having to say you’re sorry. For this government, the overriding goal of cuts, cuts, cuts, consequences be damned, to sustain tax cuts in an election year appears to justify any means of getting there, veterans be damned.

The conviction of former Conservative Party staffer Michael Sona in the Guelph Robocalls scandal last month is the latest episode in the story of the ruthless methods the party used to win power. The Conservatives’ negative ad campaign targeting former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff – such as the “just visiting” series, a reference to his work abroad over several decades – were part of it.

Sona was sentenced to serve a nine-month jail term and 12 months on probation. Thousands of automated phone calls went out to citizens in and around Guelph on May 2, 2011, spreading incorrect information on where to vote.

This was a complex operation, far beyond the technical knowledge of a junior staffer. Judge Gary Hearn said he believed Sona did not act alone. The scheme sent out 7,000 calls, allegedly from Elections Canada, directing non-Conservative supporters to the wrong polling location on Election Day. The Conservatives say it was all Sona, acting alone.

But key questions remain unanswered. Who purchased the untraceable “burner” phone used for the calls, and registered under the name “Pierre Poutine”? How did the electronic list of phone numbers used for the calls make their way from the party’s voter-contact database, CIMS, into “Pierre Poutine’s” hands?

Guelph was not the only riding where voter suppression tactics were used. In August last year, Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand reported that Elections Canada had received 1,394 complaints of misleading or harassing phone calls in 204 of 308 ridings.

According to Post Media investigative reporters Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor, systematic voter suppression and misleading calls had gone out to Liberal voters in many tightly contested ridings. Bob Rae has said he believed these calls helped defeat the party in 2011. As Michael Harris points out in his superb new book, Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover, the margin of victory in 14 of the tightest ridings that went to the Conservatives totaled just 6,201 votes, or 442 votes average per riding. It is not unreasonable to conclude that Conservative voter suppression tactics may have contributed to these results.

The conviction in Guelph and the neglect of our veterans are two issues voters will need to bear in mind when election time rolls around next year.

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