Promises vs. 'political speeches:' Tories' honesty questioned on support for injured veterans

Matt Coutts
Canada Politics
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa December 3, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS)

It was a cross-country battle for injured military veterans on Wednesday, as the prime minister fought back against accusations that promises of support were nothing more than “political speeches.”

Meanwhile in B.C., some of those injured veterans being discussed are fighting for their compensation in a court room.

Opposition parties attacked Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his beleaguered veterans affairs minister during Question Period in Ottawa today, accused of paying lip service to living veterans. A group of veterans known as the Equitas Society have launched a class-action lawsuit suggesting that the benefits paid out under the New Veterans Charter is inadequate, and does not live up to promises the government had previously made.

"This case seeks judicial determination of the nature of the unique relationship between Canada and its Armed Forced, and the obligations that flow therefrom," reads a factum submitted on behalf of the Equitas Society.

"While the issues presented by this case are novel, they are also important ones that deserve a full inquiry and determination after a trial on the merits."

According to the Chronicle Herald, the government had unsuccessfully tried to have the B.C. Supreme Court reject the lawsuit and is now appealing the case to the B.C. Court of Appeal, claiming promises made to veterans were not to be taken as gospel.

In a written submission, government lawyers argued that “these statements were political speeches not intended as commitments or solemn commitments.”

Take a moment to ruminate on that comment, on what it confesses, and then try to take politics seriously ever again.

The Conservative government made speeches – political speeches – promising support to Canada’s war veterans. And those speeches were intended to curry favour from military families and supporters. But not intended to be taken seriously in any particular way.

Essentially, anything we are promised in a politician’s effort to form government is not legal tender. It’s an empty promise. A purposeful white lie, or at least no indication of truth.

On Wednesday, Mulcair challenged Harper over the matter, demanding to know whether Harper agreed that the government didn’t have to live up to political promises.

"Does the prime minister stand by that argument, made by his own lawyer in court, that the government’s promises to veterans were just political speeches?" Mulcair asked.

Harper did not respond to the question but listed off some promises he said were not political rhetoric.

"The reality is that this government has enhanced veterans’ services in many ways," Harper said. He then challenged the NDP’s record of voting on matters related to veteran’s support.

If we are going to chastise the federal government for its political lies – and there would be plenty of opportunity to do so – we should throw shade where it is due, because they are not alone.

Reporters were forced to keep a “lie counter” during the recent Toronto mayoral race because of Rob and Doug Ford’s tendencies to make inaccurate declarations. Ontario’s previous form of Liberal government couldn’t quite get the truth out about its politically-motivated decision to cancel unpopular gas plants ahead of an election.

Manitoba’s premier was elected on a promise not to raise the provincial sales tax and now faces revolt after doing just that. Quebec’s government campaigned to freeze the cost of subsidized daycare and then raised them anyway.

All of these examples are indications that what is promised on the campaign trail stays on the campaign trail.

Last month, the National Post’s Andrew Coyne tackled the question of political honesty in a column, stating that, “Politics has never been a place for the uncompromisingly honest.”

Coyne wrote:

"But the dishonesty has gotten noticeably worse in recent years — more extreme, more brazen, without even the cover provided by those ancient dodges, to which the politician who does not wish to flat-out lie has always had recourse: evasion, ambiguity, the non-denial denial. Nowadays they don’t even bother.

The problem, rather, is that nobody is inclined to believe any of them any more, the honest politicians along with the dirty liars.”

The lack of truth in politics recently led Democracy Watch to launch an “Honesty in Politics Campaign” through which nearly 20,000 Canadians have written to their Members of Parliament demanding the creation of a “strict, easily accessible and effective system to penalize election candidates, politicians, government and political party officials who mislead the public.”

It would be improper to suggest this is a standalone issue. But the matter of political honesty between the Conservative government and Canada’s military veterans has been a tinderbox for years.

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino’s credibility has devolved to the point of ridicule, with his relationship with those he purports to represent completely botched, following the closing of nine offices across the country, distress over a funding announcement that will be stretched over five decades, and a litany of other snafus.

Last month, Fantino sat down with veterans groups to try to smooth the relationship, but froze several groups out of the meeting.

This is why this issue – this meaningless political promise of support for injured Canada’s veteran – is so prescient. On a landscape of strained relationships and funding letdowns, it is a clear, admitted declaration that campaign promises don’t matter.

The fact that it may be a legitimate argument under parliamentary and legal guidelines doesn’t satisfy the matter at all.

Political promises are empty calories. They’re meaningless to those who make them, and anyone who believes them is being foolish. That’s what is being argued in court, and that’s what we’re seeing on the campaign trail, and in legislature, now more than ever.