Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Liberal Air Force Brat’s take on Andrew Leslie’s $72,000 move

If you haven’t heard of this story, you probably stayed off social media over the Family Day long weekend, and deserve congratulations for having something of a life. But long story short, *cough* someone *cough* passed documents to CTV showing that when Lt. General Andrew Leslie retired from the Army, the Department of National Defence paid for him to move to a new home within Ottawa, at a total cost of about $72,000. This was jumped on gleefully by Conservatives and NDPers as an ungrateful soldier gouging the taxpayers, and bemoaned by Liberals as an unfair attack on a decorated military veteran who broke no rules and served his country heroically. The sharp lines are explained by the only reason this is even a story we’re hearing about: some time after his retirement, Leslie became an advisor to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, and will likely seek a Liberal nomination in 2015.

I come at this as a Liberal, obviously, but also as an Air Force brat, whose family was moved at government expense to Summerside, Trenton, Baden in Germany, and finally to Comox. We lived in military housing until our move to Comox, where my parents bought a home, and where my father would retire from the military. In the interests of full disclosure, when returning to Canada from four years in Germany, we took the option of driving from Trenton to Comox over five days, for which an allowance was provided. We had dinner at Pizza Hut at least twice but had the leftovers for breakfast, thus saving two meals. At least one hotel we stayed in had a water slide, and I did partake in the sliding.

So, on to Leslie’s move. First attack point was that it was a move within Ottawa. This is permitted by the rules – on retirement, you’re allowed a final move at government expense within two years, and in can be within the same city. We can debate whether this should be allowed, but let me argue why it should be. When my parents bought their house in Comox (well, Courtenay to be specific) my Dad had less than a week to look for a house, make a choice, sign the paperwork and do the deal. My Mom didn’t even get to see it. Dad got a brief housing leave to fly to BC from Germany to house-hunt; Mom had to stay and make sure my sister and I didn’t burn down our PMQ. Point being, the house you end up in at your last posting may not be ideal. Your partner may not like it. You may not be super keen, having bought it so quickly. You may have bought it closer to the base, but now that you’re retired it’s not an ideal neighbourhood. So those are all reasons why a retirement move within the city may make sense, and be something we should cover.

Now, on to the $72,000. Is that a crazy figure for a move? It could certainly seem so at first blush. Particularly within town. But that’s if you only factor in the costs of a moving truck and packers. The figure also includes real estate fees, commissions, and so forth. Ask anyone who has sold a house; those can add up. When you consider a senior general probably makes a pretty nice salary, and if their spouse does as well, they can probably afford a pretty nice house. With commissions being a percentage, and a million dollar home in Ottawa not being crazy, you get to that $72,000 figure fairly easily. Now, you ask, should commissions and real estate fees for veterans’ moves be covered by DND? A fair debate to have. I say yes, and here’s why. How often do you move and sell your home? Probably not very often. Maybe two or three times in a lifetime? My family moved four times in 12 years, and that’s on the low end of the curve for a military family. And it’s not like you have a lot of choice in the matter – it’s your job. If you get dinged with the real estate fees each time, you’ll quickly go broke. So I’d argue yes, that’s a fair expense to cover for our military members.

Still, how could Leslie let the bill get so high, some ask? Well, he didn’t. The serviceperson isn’t the person who hires the movers and gets the quotes and pays the bills, later seeking reimbursement. All that is handled by DND, who hires a third-party contractor who handles all the arrangements, negotiates prices and pays service providers directly. Leslie would have had little visibility into this. Now, are military moves in general too expensive, and in need of cost control? Quite possibly. The Auditor General has looked into government relocation services, and it has regularly been in the news. I think the program should be examined, not with an eye to cutting services to military members, but to ensuring the system is providing value for money. But that’s not up an individual serviceperson to do, whether it’s a Lt. General like Leslie or a Master Corporal like my father. It’s up to the Minister of National Defence, and the Government of Canada. Until now, they’ve ignored all the warnings about the relocation services system.

Should he not have somehow recognized this could be a political problem down the road though, some have said, and foregone retirement benefits he and every other retiring service member in good standing with enough length of service are entitled to? Well, given that he likely wasn’t contemplating a political career when he was retiring, that would take a remarkable amount of foresight. It would also take an amount of saintliness unknown not just in politics, but in society in general. Should a civil servant, or a union member, forego benefits granted in their employment or bargaining agreements because one day people with axes to grind might try to make them look bad? Or should we perhaps not begrudge people the retirement benefits they’re due in exchange for a career of dedicated service to their employer, whether it’s a business or the people of Canada?

Which brings us to the politics. While the NDP and Conservatives have trained their guns on Leslie, it’s hard not to see this a wider attack on the retirement benefits of all military members. After all, Leslie followed the rules of the program, a program that is available and used by retiring veterans of all ranks. Leslie’s bill is only higher because generals make more -- higher salary, more expensive house, higher commission. And he didn’t hire the contractors – the department did. So unless you’re saying it’s only bad for people that will go on to be Liberals to claim these benefits – which seems too silly to contemplate – it’s hard not to see the attack as against the program itself, a program which benefits all ranks. And I think, given the sacrifices military members make in their careers, it’s a benefit well earned.

And that’s the thing. We wouldn’t be hearing about this, were it not for the fact that Leslie was a Liberal. I have a hard time seeing CTV do a story, and the Conservatives and NDPers fulminating, about military veterans that served their country being greedy by having their moving expenses covered by the government. One also has to wonder how the documents came to CTV. While the Conservative defence minister says it was an Access to Information request (not yet posted on DND’s list of completed ATIP requests), the CTV report simply said “documents obtained by CTV.” When CTV gets docs from ATIP for a story, they so. The wording they used is what they use for documents from sources. Which seems to imply someone else filed the ATIP, if there actually was one. Who exactly is doing opposition research on military veterans? That would be interesting to know.

Anyway, to conclude, and I’ll try to take the partisan hat off as much as possible here. I think Leslie acted within regulations, and I think he has earned the benefits he claimed. While at first blush it could seem politically questionable, anyone who has sold a house knows the math makes sense. I think DND should examine its broad third party relocation services to ensure taxpayers are getting value for money. And I think we shouldn’t begrudge our veterans the services and benefits they’ve earned in a career serving their country, even if they later turn out to be – gasp—a politician.

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The Mound of Sound said...

Well put, Jeff. My late father-in-law retired as an ADM. The feds paid his move to retirement in Vancouver. The feds also handled the arrangements for movers. My father-in-law was outraged when the movers showed up in Vancouver with every stick of firewood from his Ottawa home, neatly tagged and numbered.

I wonder what they forked out to relocate the Big Cod back to Newfoundland?

Anonymous said...

Well, if per CFAOs/QR&Os, and DCBA regs, OK. Ret'd 25 year Lt(N) here. But notwithstanding, this simply shows the system should be over hauled. General rank Officers negotiate salary and it should include move on release. Bargain and get it. But one thing I will say, I've met more then 1 General rank Officer over the course of 25 years who made me wonder how they knew when the alarm clock range, it was time to get up. I won't concede al General Rank Officers deserve anything. Sorry.

suradasa said...

While you bring up some good points, Jeff, there's a bigger picture issue that you're not addressing.

If, indeed, CF members are moving every few years, then real estate fees are a huge expense over time. Even for a 300k house, it's 15k on top of the moving expenses.

If that's the case, they probably shouldn't be buying houses. There are a number of options like renting or using more gov't-owned housing. Left to your own devices (and excluding the low interest rates of the last few years), you wouldn't buy a house if you were only going to be in a city for 3 years. But if the gov subsidizes the transaction cost, then all of a sudden it's worthwhile.

So, I think the real solution is to not pay the fees unless the family had a reasonable expectation of being in the city for some period of time (say 5 years).

I have to admit that I also don't understand why military families have to move around so much, but that's another topic!


Jeff said...


If this was only a program for the general ranks, I'd argue we could better allocate those resources elsewhere. As this is a program that all ranks can utilize and benefit from, I think that's fair.


You could make that argument, but let me counter with this: is it fair to tell people that choose a military career that they need to forego home ownership until they retire? That could be 40 years of renting and paying other people's mortgages, leaving them at approaching 60+ with no home, which is the major asset most Canadians take into retirement?

Given the equity that most people would likely have in their homes approaching retirement, that's a penalty of potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars for choosing a military career. That seems like too high a price for me.

Now, should we be moving them that much? Another topic as you say, but an interesting one.

Purple library guy said...

Now a really smart approach might be to build a good deal of adequate housing near bases for military personnel, rent it to them for cheap and have an optional or mandatory "part of the rent goes into semi-forced savings" schtick, so when you leave you have a big chunk o' cash with which to buy a home.

But of course modern Canadian governments aren't into social housing, whether for the military or anyone else. Heaven forbid banks and developers and real estate flippers should make a bit less money.

On the more specific question--good explanation. Seems clear that the expense was taken in good faith. And as a dipper--well, someone less against the NDP than I am against the other parties, put it that way--I am nonetheless unsurprised that the NDP would jump on a perceived political opportunity like this without worrying about whether it's fair. Much like the Cons or Liberals would if they had a similar opportunity. Politics is a sad business.

Nadine Lumley said...


If you are going to talk about hookups why doesn't somebody march over to DND and see who John Baird has hooked up with?

. forget what day this was posted on twitter