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Friday, December 01, 2006

BC Pensioners face 15 percent pay cut

It’s going to be a miserable new year for many BC pensioners, particularily those who are retired workers in the BC construction industry. Many of them face the prospect of having their pension income cut by 15% all because of a pension solvency rule that ironically enough was designed to help them and is instead hurting them.

In 1996 pension solvency rules were re-interpreted to not only cover the usual ups and downs in the business cycle but to also cover the prospect of a pension plan being wound up. This makes sense if your pension plan is linked to only one company, say Air Canada. It makes much less sense when your pension is a multi-eployer plan linked to an entire industry like the BC construction sector.

The impact of this re-interpretation was immediate, many retired contruction workers have not received any increase in their pension income over the last ten years. Now with continued government inaction, they now face the prospect of having their pension incomes cut by an average of 15 per cent.

Some pensioners have already had this happen to them. Rod Crowe is a retired ironworker from the Lower Mainland. His pension was reduced 15% in 2005. If not for these solvency rules he would have instead received an increase in his pension income.

Now for the ironworkers’ pension plan to come to an end would pretty much require the collapse of the entire BC economy. The ironworkers have been around for one hundred years and unless BC ends up going the way of Afghanistan it will be around for centuries more to come.

But come the New Year there will be many more pensioners like Rod Crowe because BC unlike many other jurisdictions in Canada has refused to take a serious look at the issue. The Minister of Finance, Carole Taylor, is taking direction from her officials on this file. Her ministry officials have offered to review the situation on a case-by-case basis, which is a completely inadequate response.

On November 9, 2006 the government of Ontario announced it was launching a comprehensive review of its pension fund legislation. On November 7, 2006 the federal government released its Solvency Funding Relief Regulations. After Alberta, New Brunswick and Québec, the federal government is the latest jurisdiction to respond to the serious funding challenges faced by sponsors of defined benefit pension plans.

As usual the government that was the most pro-active on this issue was Alberta. On August 10, 2006, the Employment Pension Plans Act and Regulation was amended to permit specified multi-employer pension plans to temporarily suspend solvency special payments for a three year period.

Pension fund consultants, Harvey Mason of D.A. Townley and Associates, and Harry Satanove, an actuary at Satanove & Flood Consulting, have called on the government here in British Columbia to do exactly the same thing. They then want this three-year period to be used to consult with pensioners, employers and workers.

I myself have spoken directly with Finance Minister Carole Taylor on this issue. She and her ministry officials seem unwilling to follow the example set by the federal government and four other provinces until there is a hue and cry from those affected.

This is a completely bizarre response given the fact that BC has more than its fair share of pensioners and given the fact we have perhaps more in the way of multi-employer pension plans than any other province in Canada.

So if you are a pensioner and you do find yourself facing a 15% cut in your pension benefits, don’t suffer in silence. Let your MLA know, let your local media know and above all let Carole Taylor’s office know. Maybe then they will finally realize this is a matter worthy of their attention.

Mike Geoghegan is a government and media relations consultant living in Victoria, BC. He can be reached via his website at www.mgcltd.ca

Thursday, November 09, 2006

BC Pension Rule Slashes Pensions of Retired Construction Workers

BC Pension Rule Slashes Pensions of Retired Construction Workers

For immediate release
November 9, 2006

VANCOUVER, BC: Pension fund advisors, a pension fund trustee and a former representative of BC’s construction industry today gathered at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue to warn the public about a BC Pension fund regulation that is causing huge rollbacks to the pensions of retired BC construction workers.

“Current BC pension rules require pension plan trustees to set aside enough funds to cover these plans should they terminate at any moment,“ explained pension fund consultant Harvey Mason of D.A. Townley and Associates. “With the multi-employer plans that we advise on, the entire construction industry would have to collapse for these funds to fail – an extremely unlikely event given the $100 billion currently slated for construction here in BC.”

“We conservatively estimate that the cost of this one bureaucratic rule (referred to as the solvency rule) could add $1.00 to $2.00 an hour to our pension costs,” over the next two to three years said Harry Satanove, an actuary at Satanove & Flood Consulting. “As the contracts have already been negotiated, and the pension plans along with them, the only way to fund these entirely hypothetical costs is to reduce benefits - both future pensions for current workers, and in some cases pensions in pay for retired workers. The solvency rules do not benefit anyone – they do not benefit the employers and they do not benefit the workers, as they likely won’t ever see one cent of this money.”

“Worse yet, these rules that were supposed to protect pensioners have instead resulted in payments to our pensioners being reduced by up to 15%,” said Pension Fund Trustee Dave Beatty. “This is causing real hardship for some of our senior citizens and we think that the government needs to take action immediately by following the example set by the Government of Alberta.”

“We have met with government regulators but all they are willing to do is review the issue on a case-by-case basis and without offering much relief,” said Satanove. “In Alberta the government responded by suspending this regulation for three years,” noted Satanove, “and we are asking the government of BC to do exactly the same thing and use the time to engage in some proper consultation with both industry and pension groups.”
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For further information please contact:

Harry Satanove Harvey Mason Mike Geoghegan Dave Beatty
(604) 323-9363 (604) 299-7482 (250) 881-0969 (604) 709-3008

Pension Legislation backgrounder for the media

Backgrounder for Media

November 9, 2006

The Issue
Current pension legislation requires that every pension plan be prepared to terminate at any moment (referred to as the “solvency rules.”) This means that many pension plans are required to set aside a portion of the employer contribution to fund the extra costs incurred on a plan termination that no one expects to happen.

In theory pension plans can terminate at any time. However, especially with multi-employer plans, it is very improbable. For the pension funds associated with the construction industry to fail, the entire construction industry would have to be in a state of collapse, which would mean essentially that the province itself had come to a complete grinding halt.

Because many pension plans are in industries that can reasonably be expected to continue long into the future, extra contributions to fund their wind-up serve no purpose except to reduce the value of the negotiated wage and benefit package.

The provincial government recently announced it has over $100 billion worth of construction projects slated for the next few years. Labour wages represent approximately half of this cost. It is conservatively estimated that the current pension fund rules will increase pension costs by $1.00 to $2.00 per hour over the next two to three years for many people working in the construction industry. We conservatively estimate that the cost of this pension fund regulation will be at least $1 billion.

Because the wage and benefit costs, including the pension funding, have already been fixed in contracts, the additional costs imposed by the solvency rules can only be funded by reducing benefits – both future pensions for current workers and in some cases pensions in pay for retired workers. Thus rules that are meant to protect workers and pensioners are actually damaging them, to the benefit of no one. To the extent that members have wage and benefit expectations, pension solvency contributions only add to the cost pressures in the wage and benefit package.

In response to similar concerns the government of Alberta recently allowed a three-year suspension on solvency funding. Given that Alberta and BC’s legislation in this area is almost identical, a three-year suspension can and should be enacted here in BC with the added caveat that this time be used to consult with the affected industry and pensioner groups.

It should be clearly stated that at-risk pension plans do need this protection, and benefit from the current rules, as was the clear intention when these rules were implemented. Rules exist to protect all pension plans.

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Plans that are not at risk do not need this protection, and should not be required to set aside these contributions. This requirement puts excess costs and pressure onto these well funded and stable plans. This forces business to divert much needed capital away from more productive use of their resources, depriving the economy of much needed reinvestment.

Harry Satanove has met with BC government regulators who have said they are willing to review each pension plan on a case-by-case basis. However the relief that the regulator might offer under current guidelines will not be sufficient in most cases. In the meantime these funds will still be obligated to collect these additional funds.

A three-year suspension, as Alberta has enacted would take significant cost pressures off BC employers and help protect pensioners, some of whom have already had their pensions rolled back by 10% to 25%. In some cases, the pensions were reduced solely because of the solvency rules. By other funding standards to which pension plans must comply, the pension plans were adequately funded.

A three-year suspension of the solvency rules poses no negative or adverse effects from either a political point of view or from the perspective of good public policy. Indeed, there are solid economic reasons for proceeding with a three-year suspension - as Alberta has done - while pension fund solvency regulations are reviewed as the current regulations are artificially driving up construction costs and acting as a drag on economic growth.

Further government inaction will hurt the BC economy and lead to more pension reductions for retired workers.

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Vindication

It happened about three years too late, but I did finally receive some much appreciated vindication from Columnist Jody Patterson. In today's edition of the Victoria Times-Colonist, Patterson was writing about Norm's now infamous use of the word "bitch" to describe Belinda Stronach.

Jody made an excellent point about keeping "inside voices inside." But later on in the column she went on to write the following about me:

"When one-time politico Mike Geoghegan mused in 2003 about B.C. MLA Jenny Kwan's race and looks as factors in her getting elected, those who knew Geoghegan understood that he didn't really mean it to come out that way."

Thank you Jody and for the record even though I do disagree with Spector's comment about Stronach I do defend on the grounds of free speech his right to say it.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The revenge of God and the end of the age of reason

Reason versus religion. It’s a debate that has been going on ever since people tried to look beyond theology to try and figure out what was going on in the world around them.

The Age of Reason, or Enlightenment started in Europe in the 17th century and really took off in the 18th century. It helped give rise to scientific invention, a flourishing of the arts and commerce, and modern democracy itself. But as our world has rapidly advanced, it has grown ever more complicated and in so doing it has caused more and more people to turn back to religion to help make sense of our increasingly complex modern world.

Whether it be under the guise of reason or religion, fanatics will often try and exploit our desire for simple solutions to complicated problems. In the 20th century communism was responsible for the deaths of over 100 million people, mostly through starvation. Fascism probably killed another 50 million people before both were consigned to the trash bin of history.

But religious fanaticism has always been a force to be reckoned with. Whether it was Catholics and Protestants killing each other in Northern Ireland, or Shias and Sunnis killing each other in Iraq, sectarian violence has been an all too common occurrence in modern world events.

However it was in the 18th century, during full flower of the enlightenment, that the United States of America came into being. Far from wanting a theocracy, the founding fathers of our neighbour to the south were well aware of the harm that comes from not separating church and state. Thomas Jefferson spoke of the need to build “a wall of separation between church and state.”

Ben Franklin wrote, “A man compounded of law and gospel is able to cheat a whole country with his religion and then destroy them under color of law.” While James Madison said, “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”

Yet increasingly people who not that many decades ago would have been dismissed as religious crackpots now hold great sway over the American political landscape. In Richard Nixon’s time foreign policy based on trying to set in motion the conditions for the apocalypse and the second coming of Jesus Christ would have been regarded as sheer madness.

Though to be fair to the current George W. Bush administration, it should be kept in mind that there have been other world leaders who put great faith (pun intended) in the Old Testament in terms of setting foreign policy. In fact it was Protestant British Prime Minister Lloyd George, along with key members of his cabinet, who set about after the end of the First World War to (re) establish the state of Israel.

As both Lloyd George and George W. Bush believed based on the writings of the Old Testament, without a state of Israel there could be no Armageddon and hence no second coming of Jesus. Hence the need to create and maintain the State of Israel and the inevitable backlash this helped create against the West in much of the predominantly Muslim Middle East.

But it was not just the creation of the State of Israel that got most Muslim leaders up in arms. After the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France in 1979, to impose strict sharia law on an Iran he felt had been corrupted by contact with the West.

As religious issues have come to hold increasing sway over recent world events, some have started to see this as the end of the age of reason. Some have even taken to naming this new era of religious conflict as “The Revenge of God.” I prefer to see things in less apocalyptic terms.

Notwithstanding their more religious leanings a majority of Americans now seem to understand that American foreign policy under the Bush administration has been nothing short of disastrous. Secondly if one looks at a nation like Iran you will find a people that are perhaps the most pro-western of any people in the Middle East living outside of Israel. There is nothing like living under a repressive religious theocracy to make people truly appreciate the freedom that comes with living in a democratic secular state.

Yes world events will continue to remain complicated messy affairs, as all human endeavours inevitably are, but I still think the overall trajectory of human events is on the upswing. In other words these are not the worst of times human society is living in, these are still the best of times and I expect the future will be for the most part, even better.

(For a truly inspiring example of one woman’s courage in speaking out to help make our world a better place click here).

However for those desiring an even simpler philosophy to help get them through these troubled times let me quote Ricky’s Dad Ray from the Canadian Television series Trailer Park Boys:
“Boys, sometimes that’s the way she goes. Sometimes she goes, sometimes she doesn’t cause that’s the way she goes.”

Mike Geoghegan is a consultant and business executive living in Victoria, BC. Although he has now been happily married for over a decade, he has been in relationships with women who were Agnostic, Buddhist, Christian (both Protestant and Catholic), Jewish, Muslim and Sikh.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Conversation on Health

ConversationOnHealth@victoria1.gov.bc.ca

I am writing in response to your forum on health. I applaud the government for taking this initiative, which I think is long overdue. The fact is that our current health care system simply isn’t sustainable and the reason is one of demographics.

I am a 40 year old who has lived most of his life in British Columbia. I have an 80-year-old mother, a wife who is about to turn 41 years old, a ten-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter. I have watched the accessibility of our health care system steadily decline over the last twenty years despite the fact that every government be it Socred, NDP or Liberal has increased Health care budgets year after year.

I remember looking at some statistics a few years ago that said the average 18 year old costs the BC Health Care system $800 per year while the average 80 year old costs the BC Health Care system $21,000 per year. The fastest growing demographic in BC are those aged 80 and above.

Thanks to our relatively mild climate, British Columbia is the retirement destination for many people right across Canada. But now the front end of the baby boom has just turned 60 and as they retire they are flooding into BC.

The problem is that as retirees the amount they pay in taxes will be far less than what they paid when they were working. Conversely the amount of public health care services they will consume will steadily increase up to the point that they die.

Recommendation # 1 So every retiree who moves to BC is in effect helping relieve the health care burden of the province they have moved from while adding to our own. Canada’s system of transfer payments needs to take this situation into account.

Many of the people who move to BC are relatively wealthy. They need to be in order to be able to afford our ever-increasing real estate prices. Yet the Canada Health Act acts to try and restrict people from obtaining private health care in BC. These people then seek private health care treatment in the United States or even abroad in countries like India.

The antipathy towards private health care stems not from any logical reasoning, but from a knee jerk reaction against “US style health care.” Unfortunately given Canada’s proximity and insecurity regarding our neighbour to the south it has been virtually impossible to have any sort of intelligent or realistic discussion about reforming Canada’s health care system.

The fact is that if we could tear our myopic gaze away from the United States we would see that virtually every other nation in the Western World has some form of mixed private and public health care system that provides health care to all its citizens and often far more efficiently than does Canada’s.

Recommendation # 2 We need to look at Australia and Western Europe and their models of mixed private and public health care in order to come up with a health care system in BC that is both accessible and affordable.

There is a joke that the best place in Canada to have a heart attack is in a taxicab because odds are the person driving the taxi is a doctor from some other country. As Shakespeare wrote centuries ago, “much said in jest said in truth.”

The fact is that Canada’s current health care associations and regulatory agencies act as a huge impediment to health care professionals being able to actually practice medicine here. Time after time I have come across instances of people who either gave up on Canada and returned to the United States, Europe or wherever, or who ended up switching careers and who became accountants, lawyers and yes taxicab drivers because they gave up trying to get licensed to continue working as doctors or nurses.

Recommendation #3 The protectionist policies of both national and provincial health care professions and regulatory agencies have to come to an end. Health care professionals who move here from other countries should have the process of being certified expedited rather than face an insurmountable wall of red tape and delay.

It has been said that freedom begins with choice. As self-employed person if I am injured I am expected to remain and suffer on a public surgical waiting list even though this may mean the loss of everything I own. However if I am an employee, and the Workers Compensation Board covers my injury, then I am whisked into a private medical facility so that I can be treated right away.

This is because if I am waiting for surgery as a worker WCB has to pay me for my lost wages, but as a self-employed person I receive no such coverage. This is both discriminatory and hypocritical.

Moreover it is no more moral to let a person die because they were on a lengthy medical waiting list than it is to let them die because they could not afford private health care. The best health care systems are those that allow the wealthy to access private health care while freeing up space and resources for the rest of us less well off citizens.

In fact in smaller communities a robust system of private and public health care dollars would allow for greater synergies and economies of scale. Thus a community that could at present support only one orthopedic surgeon on the public rolls may find sufficient work two support two if those people were also allowed to practice private medicine as well.

Recommendation #4 Canada needs to amend the Canada Health Act to allow for the full development of private health care facilities and services here in Canada.

This last recommendation of course will have certain people ranting about US style health care, but in fact what I am advocating is European style health care.

In closing I hope that not only the Government of British Columbia, but the Government of Canada will listen to these recommendations. Far from being a threat I see the recommendations as saving our health care system.

Without such change then our public health care system will surely collapse under the weight of our aging boomer population base. As it collapses, a lot of people will die and not all of them will be Octogenarians. Some, as we have seen already, will be young people in the prime of their life who needed urgent medical care but were unable to receive it in time because of overflowing emergency wards.

Thank you for providing me with the opportunity to share some of my thoughts regarding our beleaguered public health care system.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Bon Cop Bad Cop

Recently I went and saw a Canadian movie. I think the last Canadian movie I actually saw at the theatres was about twenty years ago. It was a Quebec movie called “The Decline of the American Empire” which was a movie about failed relationships and not, as the title would imply, about the present US Administration.

Unlike most of the politically correct drivel put out by Canada’s indigenous film industry, the movie I saw this summer was actually entertaining. The movie was called Bon Cop Bad Cop and was in the classic Hollywood style of a mismatched buddy cop movie, which is part comedy and part drama. In this particular case the mismatched pair is a screw the rules Quebecois cop, David Boucher, (played by Patrick Huard) and an anally retentive by the book Ontario cop Martin Ward (played by Colm Feore).

What made this movie entertaining is it actually dared to portray some of the warts of Canadian society. Sure it played them for laughs Quebecois were referred to as “frogs” and les Anglais as “squareheads.” One of the most memorable lines of the movie was when Quebec cop Boucher says to a coroner en francais that “I know this guy (referring to Ontario cop Ward) looks like a gay accountant, but I can assure you, he’s no accountant.”

Ward, who can speak perfect Parisian French grimaces at this shot. I remember once attending an awards show in Montreal. The guest of honour was none other than world famous singer Peter Gabriel, who has a working class British accent. But when he started speaking flawless Parisian French you could visibly see the largely Quebecois audience squirm in much the same way most English Canadians or Americans do when someone starts talking like the Queen of England.

It was this same reaction that was amongst the many dichotomies between Quebec and Ontario that was played for laughs in the movie. As I left the movie theatre I thought that Canadian movies would do better if Canadian filmmakers could actually have the courage to present our society warts and all. Or even play up some of those warts for dramatic and/or comedic effect.

Certainly the hit television series Trailer Park Boys is an example of how Canadian Society’s attitude towards dope smoking is radically different than that of the United States. There is even a Trailer Park Boys movie coming out which I certainly intend to go see.

On the dramatic side there is in fact quite a bit of material to work with; especially once you peel away the faux “nice Canadian” veneer you start to see the bared teeth behind the passive aggressive grins on all too many Canadian faces.

The race war between white and black America is well known to Canadians. The best way to get a black person in the United States to stop glaring at you (if you happen to be white) is to let them know you are Canadian.

Less well known is the fact that black people in Ontario are 10 times more likely to become victims of a police shooting than whites. Aboriginals, similarly, are four times more likely in Ontario to be shot by a police officer than whites. These figures are based on data provided by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, which probes incidents involving police and civilians resulting in serious injury or death.

Again the last thing we need is another earnest politically correct piece of tripe from the National Film Board but it would be nice to see some Canadian films, be they comedies or dramas that dealt with the way Canada actually is, warts and all, rather than the nice façade we all too often try and kid ourselves into believing is the real Canada.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The World Hates Change

"The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress." - Charles Kettering

For the past four months I have had the privilege of working with the Upper Nicola Band near Merritt as Acting CEO of their Economic Development Corporation. Whether it is the Chief and Council, or the staff, all are anxious to help bring about a better way of life for their band membership as well as their region.

Upper Nicola Band’s new Chief Tim Manuel is very much pro-business development. Yet he retains a deep and spiritual connection to the land. In early August, just prior to my contract coming to an end, I had the honour of participating in a native sweat lodge ceremony with him.

It was an intense and profoundly moving experience on both a physical and spiritual level. I slept that night like a baby and a week later my skin still felt better than it had in many years because of all the toxins that had been sweated out of my body.

It is that balance, of embracing positive change while retaining values that bring out the best of us in people that is so needed in the world right now.

When it comes to religion, far too many fundamentalists reject the here and now and instead look to an afterlife as being where they will achieve peace and happiness. Whether it is evangelical Christians who celebrate the growing turmoil in the Middle East as signs of the second coming of Christ, or radical Muslims who are willing to blow themselves up and kill innocent women and children because they think that will grant them entry into heaven along with a multitude of virgins, these are people that have come to reject life and have instead embraced death.

These death cults, regardless of their nominal religious affiliation also tend to be driven by people who fear change and who yearn for some imagined afterlife based on a past simpler and/or better time that almost certainly never really existed.

The fact is a hundred years ago people in Canada were lucky to live to be 50 years old. There were diseases like polio, smallpox and tuberculosis to worry about. Many women did not survive childbirth and diseases like mumps, measles and rubella killed many children.

Is the world today perfect? Far from it. But right now notwithstanding the on-going turmoil in the Middle East this is pretty much the best the world has ever been. Change is occurring and most of it has been for the better. I know that barring some act of biological or nuclear terrorism the life my children have will be better than the one I have and certainly better than the ones their ancestors had.

So for the most part I welcome rather than fear change because the changes I have seen in my lifetime have generally been for the better rather than for the worse. But is most important that we also value this life that we have here on Earth and treat each other with respect.

Perhaps Mad Magazine put it best years ago when they wrote, “with all of these warnings of death doom and strife, it is hard to imagine a fate worse than life.”
Well I am enjoying my life and I encourage everyone else reading this column to do likewise and I hope you all had a very enjoyable summer.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Harper puts on Presidential performance in Washington

Unlike most people nowadays, I tend to get much of my news from newspapers rather than television or radio. I also from time to time check out online news sources as well. But my interest in television news has waned over the years. It has become too sensational and too emotionally manipulative, e.g. “after the break Mark Grinface will explain why your next trip to the dentist could be your last.”

But when it is actually covering an event rather than simply shamelessly manipulating us to try and grab our attention, television news gives an immediacy and a sense of “being there” that no other news medium, including the internet, can touch.

So I was glad that I caught the coverage of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s July news conference in Washington with US President George W. Bush. Bush with his faux “jus’ folks” routine was as cringe inducing as ever. To borrow a line from a bumper sticker, every time I see President Bush I can’t help but suspect that somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot.

So Bush piled on the corn pone routine, referring to Prime Minister Harper as “Steve” and then inviting people up to the podium on what was his 60th birthday. While Harper looked on with a horrified grin/grimace on his face.

What the television cameras conveyed was a no-nonsense Prime Minister who quite frankly was far more Presidential in his decorum than was his host George Dubbya. There was no treacley sentiment from Harper, he was all business.

It is a similar approach that Harper has taken towards governing Canada. For example, instead of just promising to do something about new equipment for Canada’s military, as successive Liberal governments have done since the Trudeau era, the Harper government is now going out and making purchasing decisions.

Although much ink has been spilled over the fact Harper has not gone out of his way to court the Ottawa Press Gallery, the fact is that Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s disdain for the media was even greater than that of Harper’s. The difference is that Trudeau was a political showman whereas Harper is anything but.

I still remember as a kid watching Jack Webster attempt to corner Trudeau on his BCTV morning talk show. Webster who spoke with a Scottish Burr wagged his finger at Trudeau and said, “How do you plead guilty or innocent!”

Trudeau gave his famous shrug and casually replied, “I plead ignorance because quite frankly Jack I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I rolled on the ground roaring with laughter and even in the studio Webster was smiling at how easily Trudeau had sidestepped the verbal trap he had attempted to lay for him.

However as much as people try to portray Harper as inflexible and authoritarian, the fact is that he has shown more flexibility and respect towards the provinces than perhaps any other Prime Minister in Canadian history. In so doing he has caused support for separatism to plummet in Quebec while sharply reducing the sense of alienation that many Western Canadians have felt since the 1970s.

In a similar vein Harper’s decision to provide funding directly to parents with children aged six and under to assist with childcare expenses is much fairer than setting up some multi-billion dollar government run daycare program. Why? Because a government run program would have only benefited working mothers who were content to let the state raise their children.

What about those mothers who decide to stay home? Generally a stay at home Mom provides the best quality of care for a young child. So why should these families not get the same benefit? Again the Harper government approach shows far more flexibility and respect for the differing needs of Canadian families than the centralized bureaucratic approach to daycare advocated by both the federal Liberals and NDP.

Harper is a hard guy to like, but he is an easy guy to respect. As long as he continues to govern pragmatically and not ideologically then his reward after the next election will be a majority government.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Western Communities set to tower over “old town” Victoria

In the news of late has come word of 30 story plus condominium projects that are set to rise in communities such as Colwood and Langford.

From both an environmental and demographic standpoint such projects are arriving just in time to save the region. This is because when it comes to urban development there are only two options: building up (i.e. condo towers) or building out (i.e. sprawling sub-divisions).

Of course there are those who want neither, but short of closing the airport and selling off BC Ferries that isn’t a realistic option. As our steadily rising real estate prices attest to, lots of Canadians, particularly wealthy boomers who are now approaching their retirement years, want to live here. So do a lot of people from the United States, Asia and Europe.

These generally wealthier and older immigrants are tired of shoveling snow and swatting mosquitoes, and they don’t want to mow the lawn either. They want a high-end low maintenance residence from which to enjoy the remainder of their retired or semi-retired years. In short they want luxury condos, not single family homes.

Not wanting to destroy the old town ambience of its community Victoria has generally said no to high-rise condominium projects. The Agricultural Land Reserve hems in most municipalities on the Saanich Peninsula, so that has left communities such as Colwood, Langford and Sooke as the new centres of economic and population growth for the area.

When everyone else was busy saying no, Langford cashed in and attracted a large number of big box retailers, which has helped make Langford the envy of most other municipalities within the CRD. Colwood in the meantime has now realized that if you build up those condo towers will have million dollar views of both water and mountains.

Also, unlike single-family homes, condos actually pay more in property taxes than they consume in municipal services. Thus these new towers and the revenue they bring will allow Colwood to start providing the same level of service and public amenities that residents of Langford have now come to enjoy.

The long held dream of utilizing the south end of the E&N railroad would finally become economically viable. This is because you will finally have enough population living in the western communities to make a commuter rail line between downtown Victoria and Westshore economically viable.
Best of all by building up rather than out, it will allow for much of the green space and farm land in the region to be preserved. So hats off to Colwood and hats off to Langford for having the vision and courage to say yes to high-rise condominium towers.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Onerous rules robbing pensioners

One of the inefficiencies of government is the “one size fits all” approach to government regulation. A case in point is with regards to pension fund solvency rules. Government is well aware of the fact that the front end of the baby boom is within five years of retiring.

In order to protect pension holders regulations were adopted where pension funds had to set aside funds should the pension plan come to an end. That is fine when dealing with an employer who may or may not be around in 10 or 20 years time, but when you are dealing with an entire industry sector, such as the construction industry then these rules start to get a tad ridiculous.

Currently even healthy pension plans are being forced to raise premiums and/or reduce contributions just to fund the costs of a sudden plan termination that not even government regulators themselves ever expect to have happen.

Current provincial government legislation requires that every defined benefit pension plan be prepared to terminate at any moment and meet all of its obligations to both pensioners and members who are still of working age.

Plans deemed to have a deficit, even when they can easily meet all of their obligations, are thus required to set aside extra contributions in order to be “fully funded” within five years.

The net effect is decrease the wages of employees, and the benefits of pensioners, in order to place a significant amount of money into a dead pool of capital that in many instances will never be needed.

The Harper government in Ottawa has recently acknowledged that that the rules for federally regulated pension plans are too onerous. His government has pledged a range of relief measures including extending the solvency payment schedule to 10 years.

The Campbell government has so far made no such similar promise. In fact right now the issue is being passed like a hot potato between Finance Minister Carole Taylor’s policy and regulatory branches. The policy branch is saying regulators can use their discretion while regulators are saying that current legislation does not provide any criteria for determining such matters.

Many pension fund managers in BC are recommending the development of a risk-based system so that high-risk plans continue to be required to correct solvency problems under the current rules, moderate-risk plans face less stringent rules and low-risk plans are not required to fund hypothetical solvency deficiencies.

But any such regulatory change would have to first be developed by the policy branch of the Ministry of Finance and the policy branch will not undertake such an initiative unless it is deemed to be a priority of the Minister.

That requires getting the attention of the Minister of Finance, Carole Taylor on an issue that can be daunting in terms of its complexity. But it is an issue the provincial government must come to grips with. Otherwise many British Columbians will continue seeing their pension benefits being eroded through government over-regulation and inaction.

It is expected that the Minister of Finance will find some time over the summer to meet with Pension Fund Mangers. If she does let us hope this is followed up with a signal to her Ministry policy branch to start looking at developing a pension fund risk assessment system.

Developing such a system will not be easy, but like most good government policy it is best developed with input from experts in the sector. If this approach is taken and a new risk assessment based system is adopted then this will allow for greater take home pay for workers and improved pension benefits for retirees.

It may not be politically sexy but it is good government. Providing good governance is something Finance Minister Taylor has shown herself to be quite adept at providing when it comes to issues such as labour relations. Let’s hope she can do the same when it comes to workers’ pension funds.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Wafa Sultan Speaks Up

For Muslim Who Says Violence Destroys Islam, Violent Threats
By JOHN M. BRODER The New York Times
LOS ANGELES, March 10 — Three weeks ago, Dr. Wafa Sultan was a largely unknown Syrian-American psychiatrist living outside Los Angeles, nursing a deep anger and despair about her fellow Muslims.
Today, thanks to an unusually blunt and provocative interview on Al Jazeera television on Feb. 21, she is an international sensation, hailed as a fresh voice of reason by some, and by others as a heretic and infidel who deserves to die.
In the interview, which has been viewed on the Internet more than a million times and has reached the e-mail of hundreds of thousands around the world, Dr. Sultan bitterly criticized the Muslim clerics, holy warriors and political leaders who she believes have distorted the teachings of Muhammad and the Koran for 14 centuries.
She said the world's Muslims, whom she compares unfavorably with the Jews, have descended into a vortex of self-pity and violence.
Dr. Sultan said the world was not witnessing a clash of religions or cultures, but a battle between modernity and barbarism, a battle that the forces of violent, reactionary Islam are destined to lose.
In response, clerics throughout the Muslim world have condemned her, and her telephone answering machine has filled with dark threats. But Islamic reformers have praised her for saying out loud, in Arabic and on the most widely seen television network in the Arab world, what few Muslims dare to say even in private.
"I believe our people are hostages to our own beliefs and teachings," she said in an interview this week in her home in a Los Angeles suburb.
Dr. Sultan, who is 47, wears a prim sweater and skirt, with fleece-lined slippers and heavy stockings. Her eyes and hair are jet black and her modest manner belies her intense words: "Knowledge has released me from this backward thinking. Somebody has to help free the Muslim people from these wrong beliefs."
Perhaps her most provocative words on Al Jazeera were those comparing how the Jews and Muslims have reacted to adversity. Speaking of the Holocaust, she said, "The Jews have come from the tragedy and forced the world to respect them, with their knowledge, not with their terror; with their work, not with their crying and yelling."
She went on, "We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church. We have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people."
She concluded, "Only the Muslims defend their beliefs by burning down churches, killing people and destroying embassies. This path will not yield any results. The Muslims must ask themselves what they can do for humankind, before they demand that humankind respect them."
Her views caught the ear of the American Jewish Congress, which has invited her to speak in May at a conference in Israel. "We have been discussing with her the importance of her message and trying to devise the right venue for her to address Jewish leaders," said Neil B. Goldstein, executive director of the organization.
She is probably more welcome in Tel Aviv than she would be in Damascus. Shortly after the broadcast, clerics in Syria denounced her as an infidel. One said she had done Islam more damage than the Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad, a wire service reported.
DR. SULTAN is "working on a book that — if it is published — it's going to turn the Islamic world upside down."
"I have reached the point that doesn't allow any U-turn. I have no choice. I am questioning every single teaching of our holy book."
The working title is, "The Escaped Prisoner: When God Is a Monster."
Dr. Sultan grew up in a large traditional Muslim family in Banias, Syria, a small city on the Mediterranean about a two-hour drive north of Beirut. Her father was a grain trader and a devout Muslim, and she followed the faith's strictures into adulthood.
But, she said, her life changed in 1979 when she was a medical student at the University of Aleppo, in northern Syria. At that time, the radical Muslim Brotherhood was using terrorism to try to undermine the government of President Hafez al-Assad. Gunmen of the Muslim Brotherhood burst into a classroom at the university and killed her professor as she watched, she said.
"They shot hundreds of bullets into him, shouting, 'God is great!' " she said. "At that point, I lost my trust in their god and began to question all our teachings. It was the turning point of my life, and it has led me to this present point. I had to leave. I had to look for another god."
She and her husband, who now goes by the Americanized name of David, laid plans to leave for the United States. Their visas finally came in 1989, and the Sultans and their two children (they have since had a third) settled in with friends in Cerritos, Calif., a prosperous bedroom community on the edge of Los Angeles County.
After a succession of jobs and struggles with language, Dr. Sultan has completed her American medical licensing, with the exception of a hospital residency program, which she hopes to do within a year. David operates an automotive-smog-check station. They bought a home in the Los Angeles area and put their children through local public schools. All are now American citizens.
But even as she settled into a comfortable middle-class American life, Dr. Sultan's anger burned within. She took to writing, first for herself, then for an Islamic reform Web site called Annaqed (The Critic), run by a Syrian expatriate in Phoenix.
An angry essay on that site by Dr. Sultan about the Muslim Brotherhood caught the attention of Al Jazeera, which invited her to debate an Algerian cleric on the air last July.
In the debate, she questioned the religious teachings that prompt young people to commit suicide in the name of God. "Why does a young Muslim man, in the prime of life, with a full life ahead, go and blow himself up?" she asked. "In our countries, religion is the sole source of education and is the only spring from which that terrorist drank until his thirst was quenched."
Her remarks set off debates around the globe and her name began appearing in Arabic newspapers and Web sites. But her fame grew exponentially when she appeared on Al Jazeera again on Feb. 21, an appearance that was translated and widely distributed by the Middle East Media Research Institute, known as Memri.
Memri said the clip of her February appearance had been viewed more than a million times.
"The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions or a clash of civilizations," Dr. Sultan said. "It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality."
She said she no longer practiced Islam. "I am a secular human being," she said.
The other guest on the program, identified as an Egyptian professor of religious studies, Dr. Ibrahim al-Khouli, asked, "Are you a heretic?" He then said there was no point in rebuking or debating her, because she had blasphemed against Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and the Koran.
Dr. Sultan said she took those words as a formal fatwa, a religious condemnation. Since then, she said, she has received numerous death threats on her answering machine and by e-mail.
One message said: "Oh, you are still alive? Wait and see." She received an e-mail message the other day, in Arabic, that said, "If someone were to kill you, it would be me."
Dr. Sultan said her mother, who still lives in Syria, is afraid to contact her directly, speaking only through a sister who lives in Qatar. She said she worried more about the safety of family members here and in Syria than she did for her own.
"I have no fear," she said. "I believe in my message. It is like a million-mile journey, and I believe I have walked the first and hardest 10 miles."

Sunday, April 02, 2006

NDP Agenda Keeps BC Treaty Making on Hold

In human affairs it is all too often the dead hand of history that keeps progress from being made. For instance in British Columbia, unlike most other jurisdictions in North America, few treaties were ever signed with the original native inhabitants.

Thus the crown came to occupy land that in essence it cannot show how it came to have legal title over it. This despite a Royal Proclamation issued in 1820 which made it clear that land was not to be occupied unless treaties had first been obtained.

This has left British Columbia with a legal uncertainty that it is conservatively estimated costs BC several billions of dollars per year in lost investment. After many decades of negotiation the Nisga’a were finally able to conclude a modern treaty with the governments of British Columbia and Canada.

After this success, there followed the establishment of the BC Treaty Commission and a modern treaty making process that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars but has so far failed to produce a single ratified treaty agreement.

Again the dead hand of history comes into play. It was an NDP government that established the treaty process and in setting it up they made sure that the NDP's tax and regulate agenda was front and center. So one caveat was that within eight years of signing a treaty the band members who ratified the treaty would have to start paying sales taxes to the government and within 12 years they would have to start paying income taxes.

Just to be clear here natives who earn income off reserve pay the same income taxes as everyone else regardless of whether or not they live on a reserve. I have written before in previous columns about this so called 8 and 12 formula has helped kill several potential treaty agreements including with the Sechelt who pulled out of the BC Treaty process over this issue.

But there is another part of the NDP agenda that lives on in the BC Treaty process. It is the insistence by the government of British Columbia on moving the status of reserve lands from federal ‘91(24)’ authority to provincial ‘92’ authority. The big driver behind this issue is to have provincial laws, including those governing the Agricultural Land Reserve and Forest Land Reserve apply to treaty lands.

Thus First Nations who ratified a treaty with this provision in it would face the prospect of not being able to develop their lands as they see fit but be forced to remain undeveloped areas of agricultural and forest green belt. This is clearly unacceptable to most First Nations currently within the treaty process.

Yet public and industry perception is that it is First Nations rather than the intransigence of federal and provincial negotiators that is holding up the settlement of treaties here in British Columbia.

It is this misperception that must be corrected if we are ever going to see the federal and provincial negotiators move from their current bargaining position. The message also needs to be driven home to the Campbell government in Victoria and the Harper government in Ottawa that is an NDP tax and regulate agenda that has caused the BC treaty process to stall.

The only people benefiting from these stalled treaty talks are consultants, lawyers and bureaucrats, who are all making a healthy living off of a process that is going nowhere fast. Meanwhile it is the private sector, the general public and first nations members themselves who are on the losing out because of foregone private sector investment.

In order to help bring these issues into sharper focus the Westbank First Nation is hosting a conference on May 30th at the Sensiuyusten Community Centre. The title of the conference neatly sums up its purpose, “Making or Breaking the Treaty Process: The Constitutional Status of Treaty Settlement Land.”

Senior executives from a variety of resource sector companies, key federal and provincial government officials, as well as a variety of First Nations leaders have been invited to attend. I sincerely hope this conference is a success, because if it is not we as taxpayers of British Columbia can look forward to many more years of fruitless treaty negotiations.
Mike Geoghegan is a government and media relations consultant based in Victoria, BC

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Those who slam Emerson’s defection, don’t understand parliamentary democracy

As breathtakingly audacious as David Emerson’s defection to the Conservatives was, it was hardly without precedent. In fact it was no less an esteemed parliamentarian than Sir Winston Churchill who in Britain crossed the floor from the Liberals to the Conservatives. It was also Churchill who once summed up the political journey many of us make when he stated, “anyone who isn’t a socialist by 20 doesn’t have a heart and anyone who isn’t a conservative by 30 doesn’t have a brain.”

The Liberal Party of Canada is certainly in no position to criticize Emerson’s defection. First of all when they recruited him as a star candidate they knew he was a small “c” conservative. The Liberals were also not shy about recruiting Tory MP Scott Brison, Reform/Alliance MP Keith Martin and former BC NDP Premier Ujjal Dosanjh. But of course the most breathtaking recruitment was that of high profile Conservative leadership candidate Belinda Stronach.

It is also worth noting that all four of these political floor crossers were re-elected in the last federal election and both Brison and Stronach have even been talked about as potential Liberal leadership contenders. Although the federal NDP has been the shrillest in attacking Emerson this is nothing more than political opportunism.

Emerson’s riding is Vancouver-Kingway a riding that for years was represented by perennial NDP politician Ian Waddell. The federal NDP know that if Emerson were to resign that the riding would almost certainly go to the NDP in a by-election.

The NDP are also the most reticent of the major political parties to accept people who cross the floor. After losing her nomination, former Liberal Sheila Copps tried to do just that but was rebuffed by the local party faithful despite the expressed wishes of NDP Leader Jack Layton who knew the political cachet having a former Deputy Prime Minister would bring to his caucus.

I would argue that the NDP’s puritanical approach has hurt rather than helped them by cultivating an image of a party made up of true believers who do not accept anyone who dared to once break bread with another political organization. It not only limits the NDP’s talent pool it also sends the message that unless you have always believed in the NDP’s tax and spend agenda you will never be truly welcome in their party.

For those who place partisan consideration above everything else, Emerson’s defection was indeed unseemly or even traumatic. But it was actually good for BC and good for Canada. It was good for Canada in that it has provided some cabinet continuity in a time of short lived minority governments, and it is good for BC in that it has helped give us a strong voice at the cabinet table.

I also want to respond to those who slammed Harper for appointing Emerson. The fact is that Harper listened to those who clucked about the fact the Conservatives had no representation in Canada’s three largest urban centers. In recruiting Emerson he received representation in Vancouver, and in appointing a Senator who is based in Montreal he has helped ensure that city is represented at the cabinet table as well. Rather than being slammed for this Harper should have been congratulated for trying to ensure all areas of Canada feel represented in his government.

Last but not least when Emerson was recruited out of the private sector, it was not to warm his seat on the opposition benches, but to bring his years of experience as a senior government official and industry CEO to the cabinet table. In the end Prime Minister Stephen Harper recruited him for exactly the same reasons former Prime Minister Paul Martin did and we as Canadians and British Columbians are the better for it.

Michael Geoghegan is a Victoria based political consultant.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Indecision 2006 a positive outcome for Canadian Unity

It has often been said that governments are like diapers; they both need to be changed on a regular basis and for the same reason. Certainly after 14 years in power the federal Liberals were in need of a time out. The sponsorship scandal, the income trusts investigation by the RCMP, and the overall culture of entitlement pointed to a political establishment that was in need of some serious housecleaning.

That is why over half the people who voted Conservative in this election did so because they recognized that it was indeed time for a change. Paul Martin responded to that message by announcing his resignation as Liberal Party leader and thus setting the stage for the federal Liberal Party to have a leadership convention where there is no obvious frontrunner, something that has not happened for the Liberals since 1968.

The Conservatives although no doubt disappointed at their shut out in Canada’s three largest urban centers, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, should take real pride in winning ten seats in Quebec. In so doing they have re-established themselves as a truly national party. In fact if not for rising Tory fortunes, the Bloc Quebecois had been set to take over 50% of the popular vote. Instead they emerged with two fewer MPs than they had going into this election.

So in one fell swoop, the Harper Conservatives have deflated both the separatist aspirations of Quebec Nationalists, and the feelings of alienation felt by many Western Canadians. Harper has also taken steps to shore up Canada’s sovereignty in the north by making it clear he intends to proceed with the purchase of at least two icebreaking vessels to help patrol Canada’s North-West Passage.

This election has essentially given Harper a limited mandate. As Prime Minister he is on probation. If he does well he will no doubt return with a majority government. His most important task is slaying the scary “SOCON” (social conservative) dragon. It is worth noting that when noted SOCON Cindy Silver ran in North Vancouver she lost to the Liberals. The bottom line message is that most Canadians want government out of our wallets, but we certainly don’t want them in our bedrooms either.

While sifting the tea leaves of the federal election results, I will note for the record that on day two of the federal election campaign, while on Canada AM, I correctly predicted that the greater Victoria area would elect one Liberal, one Conservative and one NDP MP. The other thing worth noting is that all three MPs who quit Stephen Harper’s party to join the Liberals, Keith Martin, Scott Brison and Belinda Stronach were all re-elected.

Usually politicians that switch political parties fare poorly. Another interesting fact is that in the southern Interior when the Conservative candidate was knocked out of contention by cross border smuggling charges, it was the NDP candidate Alex Atamenenko that received the majority of those erstwhile Tory voters.

The clear lesson here is that, especially out here in BC, there are a large number of voters that will switch between the Conservatives and the NDP. I believe that it is because these voters are motivated to vote against the establishment. Thus in 1984 BC, along with the rest of Canada elected a large number of Conservative MPs, but in 1988, while the Mulroney government was re-elected, BC for the first time in its history sent a majority of NDP MPs to Ottawa.

Of course a change in government in Ottawa also changes things up in the consulting business, the field in which I work. Mark Marrissen of Burrard Communications was able to parley his close association with Paul Martin into a thriving consulting business called Burrard Communications where clients were charged as much as $600 per hour.

Mark will almost certainly be persona non grata with the Harper government, so who in Vancouver will move in to fill the void? My money is on Tim Crowhurst over at Sea Level Communications. His connections will become especially lucrative should the Harper government be re-elected to a majority government in a couple of years time.

In the meantime I continue to maintain connections with all the major political players in both Ottawa and Victoria so that changes of government for the most part do not affect me one way or another I am still able to get results for my clients. That is why I have been able to make a successful living as a consultant since 1996 while other more prominent “lobbyists” have come and gone.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

BC will decide outcome of “battle of the blands”

The early days of the federal election campaign have not so far produced the fireworks everyone was expecting. In fact about the only thing that has passed for excitement so far in this campaign is the commitment by NDP Leader Jack Layton to shave off his mustache if his wife Olivia Chow is elected an MP in Toronto.

There was certainly some consternation over Martin’s announcement of a handgun ban early in the campaign. Apparently the strategy was to create a “wedge issue” between the Liberals and the Conservatives. Harper was smart enough not to bite and instead it was left to the Liberal Premier from BC, the Conservative Premier from Alberta and the two NDP Premiers from Manitoba and Saskatchewan to shoot down the ill-conceived policy announcement. Thus Harper came across looking restrained while Martin looked like he was firing blanks.

If the Liberals want to get serious about reducing handgun violence they need to beef up security at our borders in order to reduce the amount of handguns that are being smuggled across the border. The costs associated with this can be recovered by scrapping the completely ineffective gun registry program that has gobbled up two billion dollars of taxpayers’ money and has done absolutely nothing to stem the increase in gun violence in Canada.

The Conservatives meanwhile have scored some good points on putting some money into the military to shore up Canada’s territorial claims over the arctic. Let’s be clear on this the United States and Denmark have both taken steps in recent years to encroach on our northern sovereignty. This is because as the artic ice melts the Northwest Passage is going to be an increasingly lucrative way of shipping goods and services between Europe, North America and Asia.

Prime Minister Paul Martin has dismissed Stephen Harper’s announcement by stating that much of what Harper has announced is already his government’s policy. Yes but what Paul Martin doesn’t seem to understand is that leaders aren’t judged so much on their policy but on their deeds.

But it’s hard to get action out of politicians that are increasingly being selected for their ability to be “non-controversial.” The best way to be non-controversial is to say and do as little as possible. So we have safe middle of the road suggestions emerging from all three federal party leaders while a skeptical public looks on and worries about the NDP’s tax and spend agenda, the odor of corruption still swirling around the Liberals, and a Conservative Party that is dominated by social conservatives.

With Quebec voting heavily for the “none of the above option” i.e. the Bloc Quebecois, it looks like whether we have a Liberal or Conservative Minority government elected in Ottawa will be determined right here in BC. Right now it looks like Vancouver Island is swinging towards the NDP, urban ridings in the Lower Mainland are going strongly Liberal while the rest of BC will likely stick with the Conservatives.

So BC will likely send a fair number of Liberal, Conservative and NDP MPs to Ottawa. But if the combined total of Liberal and NDP MPs is not enough to form a majority both Stephen Harper and Paul Martin may have to think the unthinkable and form a Liberal Conservative, or Conservative Liberal coalition government.

As unpalatable as such a prospect might be to either party it might be the only combination that may end up working. That’s the situation Germany faced in its recent federal election when Angela Merkel, the German conservative whose party narrowly defeated Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder socialists, ended up forming a coalition government with Schroeder’s party.

Certainly there are many areas on paper where the Liberals and Conservatives agree. They both support tax cuts, they both have talked about increased funding for the military and both have talked about having an elected Senate. The difference being is that a Liberal Conservative coalition government would actually deliver on those things rather than just talk about them.

The other great thing about such a coalition is that it would hamstring both the tax and spend left wing of the Liberal Party as well as the religious right within the Conservative Party thus leaving Canadians with pretty much the kind of balanced government that not only talks about doing things but actually does them.