POLITICS

Liberals Pledge $300 Million For Veterans, Say Little About How They'll Pay For It

08/24/2015 01:14 EDT | Updated 08/24/2016 05:59 EDT

BELLEVILLE, Ont. — The sight of Justin Trudeau standing in front medal-laden ex-soldiers on Monday and laying claim to the politically hallowed ground of veterans care may have turned more than a few heads in the Conservative war room.

The Liberals, after all, are frequently accused by the Conservatives of ushering in the so-called "decade of darkness" of defence budget cuts starting in the 1990s.

Trudeau chose to make his $300 million per year, comprehensive platform announcement close to the country's largest military air base near Trenton. Ont., and steps away from the Highway of Heroes. The Conservatives, who claim ex-soldiers as their natural constituency, undoubtedly took note.

The plan was also laid out in the presence of the fiercest critics of the Harper government's veterans' policies.

Trudeau did not fully explain how the top-ups to existing programs, such the permanent impairment allowance and the earnings loss benefit, would be accounted for in a federal budget that by his own estimation is already in deficit.

He said a fully costed Liberal platform would be out soon and recommitted himself to a balanced budget, but "how long that takes depends on the size of the mess Stephen Harper has left behind."

Regardless, Trudeau said Liberal reforms, which would be in addition to a series of new programs introduced last spring by the Conservatives, would be implemented right away. This includes annual spending of $100 million per year to expand families and caregiver support and $80 million to cover four years of university or college for returning soldiers.

"We need to end the unnecessary hardships we allow our veterans to endure," Trudeau said, noting the Liberals would hire an additional 400 veterans case workers, restoring positions cut by successive Conservative budgets.

"If I earn the right to serve this country as your prime minister, no veteran will be forced to fight their own government for the support and compensation that they have earned."

That Trudeau has even had the opportunity to plant his political flag on traditional Tory turf is noteworthy as a sign of how damaging and toxic the political debate has been, especially over the last two years. Some ex-soldiers have taken to campaigning against the ruling party in the Anyone But Conservatives movement.

On the campaign trail in Drummondville, Que., Harper denied he was losing natural allies.

"It's completely the opposite. Veterans have been supporters of our party for a long time because soldiers in uniform and soldiers afterwards are always the priority of our party," said Harper, noting the budget for benefits under his government has increased by 35 per cent since they came to office.

"Evidently, it's not a unanimous opinion, but I think veterans really understand this government's support for them."

After facing criticism in 2014 for unspent funds at Veterans Affairs and wait times for soldiers facing mental health issues, the Conservatives announced a series of improvements for the most critically injured and their families, including a new caregiver benefit.

The Liberal promise would address every issue wounded soldiers have been fighting for, said Mike Blais, of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, which was accused by Conservative MPs of taking partisan stands.

"We are an advocacy based on effecting political reform. It's our duty to engage all MPs," said Blais, "and we have engaged all MPs including Conservatives. The difference is the Conservatives aren't listening."

Jenny Migneault, the wife of a former soldier with post traumatic stress who notoriously chased after former veterans' minister Julian Fantino in Parliament, said she's pleased with the proposals, but recognizes it is an election campaign.

The Liberals, unlike the NDP, "really opened the door when I knocked and wanted to talk about specifics" of improving care, she said.

Conservatives may be feeling the burden of ownership on veterans' issues, and that mantle is something the Liberals seem eager to adopt, consequences and all.

"We are going to hold a Liberal government to the promises they made today," Blais warned. "This is not over with the election."