By MICHAEL BLAIS |
Published: Friday, 02/28/2014 6:19 pm EST
Last Updated: Friday, 02/28/2014 8:02 pm EST
NIAGARA FALLS, ONT.—The artificially created furor over Andrew Leslie's military retirement benefits has borne the expected results. Political pundits took to social media, radio, newspapers, and television for several days to discuss the seemingly outrageous sum that the former general claimed for housing and move-related expenses as a component of the Canadian Forces retirement benefit.
Benefit, not entitlement.
Disinformation, perhaps willfully applied in the guise of political expedience, stoked the flames of discord. Defence Minister Rob Nicholson chimed in on cue, disparaging Leslie's judgment despite the fact that this seemingly terrible act occurred under his watch. Esteemed Ottawa barrister Michel Drapeau, for whom I bear a great deal of respect, expressed disappointment due to proximity issues inherent with Leslie's move. His position was buoyed by a CBC exposé dramatically revealing that several admirals and Army/Air Force generals also availed themselves of this program when they decided to retire in the community of their last assignment. Most recently, Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant, who shocked the veterans' community at CFB Petawawa with her inconsiderate comments on mental health stigma, embraced this position and has announced publicly that she will be studying "relocation" costs incurred through the CF retirement benefit.
Retired colonel Pat Stogran, Canada's first veterans ombudsman, was perhaps the most outspoken critic. Joining the fray on CBC Power and Politics, he derided Leslie as self-serving and claimed that he did not take advantage of his retirement benefit as he felt there was, due to ongoing public service, a conflict of interest when he assumed his role as Canada's first veterans ombudsman. There is no conflict of interest. Military service is unique; the retirement benefits inherent with a willingness to sacrifice one's life on behalf of the nation over a 20-year service span reflect this most sacred obligation. Whether you choose to retire or, as I would encourage younger veterans such as Leslie, to continue to serve the nation's interests through public service, is irrelevant to the program criteria.
Perspective is required. First, this not some dreaded liberal entitlement with all the dreaded connotations inferred by those who would attempt to make the issue political shortly before Leslie was to speak before the Liberal biennial convention. Leslie is, of course, an exception; a vast majority of CF retirement benefit recipients have not incurred such a wonderful equity return on their investments. Real estate fees, the primary component of the program, on a million-dollar-plus home are not insignificant; at the very least, close to $60,000 of the $72,000 in question was applied to this expense. Add to this the legal costs associated with selling and buying a home, moving expenses and the $72,000 is clearly justified under the programs criteria. ?
Leslie is an exception. Most CF personnel are not posted to a prime real estate area like Ottawa; there is no market-inflated increase in equity. Some, such as major Marcus Brauer, have suffered catastrophic consequences when the military communities, that DND encouraged them to purchase equity-building homes in, were subsequently ravaged by deficit reduction downsizing or base closures and the market collapsed. The rank and file, by pay-scale definition, does not have the financial resources to purchase accommodations equitable to the same level of comfort as would be expected of a general. They are also subject to four-year posting cycles common to military service that necessitates relocation before accruing much equity. Leslie was fortunate. He maintained his residence in Ottawa for an extended period of time and the equity the property accrued was indeed significant.
DND implemented the program in the 1990s to encourage CF members to purchase homes during their careers to establish financial equity to supplement their pensions upon retirement. This program has borne significant benefits to the affected communities and DND equity assurance policies undoubtedly stimulated and sustained economic growth in isolated areas—like CFB Petawawa, Gallant—wherein the base provides the sole or primary employment infrastructure. Where bases still exist, CF members often choose to retire there due to preference, post-military employment opportunities and/or the fact that their spouses, understanding retirement is imminent, availed themselves of local employment opportunities that transcend the standard posting period. ??
To deny the rank, file, and their families these retirement benefits by using Leslie, the exception, as an example to eliminate the CF retirement benefit program or imposing criteria inclusive of mandatory range exclusions, is disingenuous. Significant financial hardship will be imparted upon the retiring CF member as these costs, real estate, legal fees, moving expenses, will surely negate most if not all equity accrued through the DND sponsored program.
Leslie, exception he may be, fulfilled the program's longstanding criteria for eligibility. Questions about his judgment are clearly unfounded, politically motivated and, considering Gallant's response, perhaps indicative of a more insidious budget deficit scheme to deny Canadian Forces members the retirement benefits they have earned.
I would suggest now is the time for the Harper government, with respect, not derision, to honour its obligation to Leslie and to all CF members who have fulfilled their obligation to this nation and qualify for CF retirement benefits, wherever they choose to retire. Canada's sons and daughters have, through great sacrifice and honour, earned the right of choice.
Michael L. Blais, CD, is founder and president of the Canadian Veterans Advocacy and is based in Niagara Falls, Ont.
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