Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.
Canadian governments have piled up more than a trillion dollars in debt, money borrowed to provide services to citizens. Being penny-wise and pound-foolish doesn't come naturally to most politicians.
That's just one reason why the Conservatives' dismal management of their relationship with veterans is causing people to scratch their heads.
This government wouldn't lose a single vote by spending another billion on veterans. Among voters who say fiscal management is an important issue the Conservatives have a solid lead on other parties. Plus, it's now a matter of weeks, not years, before the federal budget will return to surplus once again. There's money to spare, and few, especially few small c-conservative voters, would begrudge spending more to help out veterans.
The saga of this government's relationship with veterans is textbook-ready.
But is the lesson about a group of voters being taken advantage of? Or simple incompetence?
This government is known for playing to "its base." Military families are at or near the top of the list of voters the Conservatives would want to call their own. For photo opportunities the Conservatives are happy to stand with Canada's military personnel. But for help in times of need, not so much.
This government routinely spends money on things that serve their partisan electoral strategy. Fiscal prudence? Not when it comes to advertising its economic management.
Hundreds of millions have been spent on baubles and trinkets to appeal to voters who fall into the right categories in the Conservative database. This hardly makes them the first party to do this in government. But they'd like us to believe they are best, the most clever, at it.
Clever is not a word that belongs in this story about the treatment of veterans.
With a mandate that is not complicated and a budget of $3.6-billion, Veterans Affairs Canada has the resources it needs to meet our obligations to those who have served this country. But if they care about veterans, they seem incapable of showing as much.
Let's consider the facts.
Ottawa closes a handful of veterans' services offices, to save a paltry sum. It endures painful protests by veterans advocates, treats the protesters with scorn, and months later has billions of dollars to spend on tax cuts and other benefits.
Over seven years, Veterans Affairs failed to spend more than a billion dollars of the money Parliament had been asked to allocate. And so the money was returned to the Treasury. The government's explanation? We routinely overestimate how much is going to be needed for pay and benefits. A conservative administration saying in effect "no matter how hard we try, year in and year out, we just can't figure out what this stuff is going to cost us." And then, the saddest bit. The Auditor-General reveals the department is Scrooge-like when it comes to giving veterans the mental-health services they're entitled to.
We're talking about people who are seeking medications to deal with the scars they have from service on our behalf. Not all-expenses-paid trips to Florida. The department, apparently, is slow to respond, and says 'no' more often than it should.
Not because there's hardly enough money to go around – this is a place that finishes each year with hundreds of millions of unspent dollars.
I'm not suggesting the average conservative doesn't care about veterans. The ones I know are likely as disappointed as everyone else to hear how slow-footed and tight-fisted the government has been.
It's better to believe that this is just breathtaking incompetence. Because to believe that this is truly what this government is made of would feel even worse.