Andrew Scheer made a slew of promises to veterans on Sunday morning, including pledging that a Conservative government would deal with the backlog of veterans benefits applications within two years.
The Conservatives are proposing to create a military covenant between the federal government and all veterans — a legislative pledge to ensure veterans are respected and provided with services in a timely manner.
“Our military heroes are deserving. Our military heroes are worth it,” he said, addressing a crowd of veterans sitting on a cliff above the ocean in Canoe Cove, P.E.I.
Scheer didn’t say what that would mean in practical terms, but said it’s about changing the “culture” around veterans.
The Parliamentary Budget Office estimates the promise to clear the application backlog would cost $51 million over two years.
That backlog has been a problem for the federal government since 2009, when the Stephen Harper government implemented deep cuts to Veterans Affairs.
Most waiting 4 months or more
The Liberals have been struggling to work through the stack of benefits applications. As of last December, Veterans Affairs had 27,107 disability claims registered in the system. Of those, 15,421 — 57 per cent of the total — had been waiting in the queue for more than four months.
Trudeau’s government hired more frontline staff and committed $42 million over two years to clear up the backlog. But the system has been plagued with issues, including an accounting error that short-changed 270,000 ex-soldiers on their benefits.
“Talk is cheap,” Scheer said of his opponent. “You have been betrayed, you deserve better.”
On top of dealing with the backlog, the Conservatives say they will create a pension system that is more fair to disabled former military members.
The Parliamentary Budget Office released their analysis of the Conservatives’ proposal to increase pension payments, estimating the cost in the 2020-2021 fiscal year (the first year it’s in place) at $103 million. It would drop in half to $51 million the following year and flatline around that mark up to 2029.
During the 2015 election campaign, the Liberals promised to give injured military members the option of receiving either a lifetime pension or a lump sum disability award.
Liberal reworking of pensions poorly received
The previous lifetime pension system was eliminated by the Harper government in 2006, with injured veterans offered only a lump sum payment most considered inadequate.
The new Liberal plan, which involved a complex redrawing of the benefits system, was unveiled in December 2017 and implemented this year.
A PBO report from earlier this year found that new system of benefits for injured veterans is slightly more generous than the one it replaces, but leaves the most severely disabled in worse financial shape.
The dearth of services for veterans dates back to the Harper years with the shutting of eight Veterans Affairs offices.
“We have a new opportunity,” Scheer said of the Harper cuts, reaffirming he has a “personal interest in ensuring that the commitments we’ve made today are followed through on.”
Commemorations, service dogs, mefloquine inquiry
The Conservatives would also beef up transition services for discharged and retiring Forces members, provide more service dogs, kick-start more commemoration projects and launch an independent inquiry to investigate the cases of members who were given mefloquine.
Several Forces members have launched a lawsuit against the government because of traumatic side effects from the anti-malaria drug.
They allege they are still suffering from psychosis, paranoia and insomnia.
That investigation would cost $20 million over two years, according to the PBO. Service dog costs are pegged at $4.5 million over three years.