September 2015 Archives

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Pensions--one of the most important reasons to vote out the Conservatives

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If you still need a reason to vote for a change in government on October 19th, think pensions. It was recently confirmed through a freedom of information request that the Conservatives are drafting legislation aimed at taking away the promise of a secure pension from federally regulated workers. If the Conservatives are re-elected, that draft will become law.

I’ve already said plenty about the Conservatives threat to encourage “target benefit plans” as a substitute for defined benefit plans. Briefly, what members have now is a guaranteed pension at the end of their service based on a set formula. But with a “target benefit plan,” the pension is not guaranteed, even after you retire. The PSAC made a detailed submission on this more than a year ago, shortly after the “target” concept was floated by Kevin Sorenson, Minister of State for Finance.

Here’s a little background.

At the time, Treasury Board minister Tony Clement called me to say that this proposal would only apply to workers in the federally-regulated sector, not to the public service. His hands were already full with an attempted roll-back of our sick leave.

But he didn’t shut the door either. “Not during this round of talks,” he said. Then, Sorenson’s proposal seemed to vanish without a trace.

Until now.

Thanks to an Access to Information request filed by Blacklock’s Reporter, an online newsmagazine, we’ve learned that the Harper government has been drafting legislation since last November to strip away pension security for federally-regulated workers, despite Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s statement this past April that no changes would be made without the consent of the retirees. A private letter from Oliver to the chairman of the China Insurance Regulatory Commission reaffirmed what’s been going on behind the scenes: “The introduction of Target Benefit Pension Plans will be an important innovation in Canada and will complement recent efforts by the government to further strengthen Canada’s retirement income system.”

So the issue has not gone away. Just the reverse, in fact.

We’ve already seen the Harper government chipping away at our members’ pensions, raising the eligibility age for young workers and increasing the contribution rate. If these new weakened pension plans are going to be legislated for federally-regulated workers, why wouldn’t Harper do it to us?

Can we accept his government’s assurances, given that his finance minister has now been caught in a lie? Do we have any reason whatsoever to think Harper will leave our pensions alone, out of the goodness of his heart?

And now we have the grim news that Harper is leading in at least one poll. “Closing in on majority territory,” we’re told.

Oh, well, maybe it’s a blip. Things have changed week by week during the campaign so far—perhaps they’ll change back, right?

I say, let’s not leave anything to chance.

Try to imagine what yet another Harper government would do to your pensions. Then go round up ten friends and neighbours and drive them to the polls yourself on October 19 if you have to. You really can’t afford not to.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Refugee crisis--doing the right thing

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The before and after pictures, above, say it all. Most of us have seen the first one. The anguished father and his family made it to Germany, as it turns out, where they now have a chance to live normal lives in a safe environment.

More than four million Syrians have fled their country; another seven million have been displaced within it, as civil war rages. Germany is prepared to take 800,000 refugees fleeing war and persecution—fully 1% of its population.

In Canada, the equivalent would be 350,000 refugees.

Number of Syrian refugees actually admitted to Canada? 2,374 since January 2014.

Number of Syrian refugees pre-approved for immigration, to be privately sponsored by Canadians? Nine.

Cutbacks at Citizenship and Immigration have already created huge backlogs in the system.

Now, unbelievably, the Harper government is cutting positions at the Canada Immigration and Refugee Board.

Yes, you read right.

It’s not the way Canada used to do things. We airlifted 5,000 refugees from Uganda in 1972, another 5,000 people from Kosovo in the 1990s, and assisted with the resettlement of 60,000 Vietnamese in 1979-80. Front-line workers were flown to remote islands in the South Pacific to process the Vietnamese refugees. The official who oversaw that airlift noted, “When the sun went down, they would light oil lamps and they would continue until they couldn’t keep their eyes open.”

But the Harper government has a different approach.

The government was unwelcoming to refugees throughout its four terms. It took a federal court decision to force Harper to provide adequate medical coverage for refugee claimants: the judge called their treatment “cruel and unusual.” Almost needless to say, the government is spending tax dollars appealing this ruling. Ontario decided to pick up the slack, restoring the needed healthcare—and Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander had the nerve to scold the province for stepping in.

Roadblocks have been put in the way of refugees every step of the way. Far from the streamlined measures used for the Vietnamese years ago, desperate applicants must wait up to four years for a review by Canadian visa officials. Worse, it appears that the Harper government wants to pick and choose refugees based on their religion.

This is plain wrong, when the world is facing the gravest refugee crisis since the end of World War II. We need immediate measures put in place, not more empty election campaign talk. I am proud that our union has added its voice to those of so many other Canadians who want to help, moved by the human plight of so many millions of displaced people.

10,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end would be a good start. Our front line workers stand ready and willing to assist, but we need a lot of obstacles removed, and sufficient resources to deal with the new arrivals.

That photo of a drowned child whose family wanted to come to Canada made it personal for me and all Canadians. We can’t, we mustn’t, turn away. It’s not who we are.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Harper's skulking Conservatives

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The text above says a good deal, if not all, about Harper’s current election campaign—and about the man and his party. It’s a body-search agreement, which must be signed by anyone privileged to attend invitation-only Conservative rallies and other gatherings. There are no public meetings.

Journalists are roped off, allowed no more than a total of five questions during a Harper rally, and roundly booed by noisy partisans when they try to ask them. And even after these staged events, they can expect to be confronted and cursed at by Harper’s entourage.

Democracy is best done in the full light of day, not in darkness. That’s what election campaigns are supposed to be all about, and what they have been all about—until now. Debate. Tough questions. All-candidates’ meetings. Lots of media coverage. Informing, or at least courting, the voters. And hearing from voters, too.

In an earlier post I talked about the Harper preference for silence. I noted a couple of instances where Conservative candidates were making themselves scarce, in line with a Conservative policy of ducking the media during the campaign.

That policy is clear, and actually applies across Canada: “No debates and no media,” the candidates have been told. And nearly all of them have obeyed.

One can see, perhaps, why Conservatives, running on their records, are eager to keep out of sight. But that’s not the main point here.

Democracy requires accountability and transparency, neither of which have appealed to the Conservatives under Stephen Harper. (There is no need to name examples at this point: if you haven’t been asleep since Harper took power in 2006, you can come up with a pretty long list of your own.) What is happening during this campaign isn’t all that unusual, in fact, except in degree. But somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better.

An election campaign should be open to the voting public, not just to select groups of well-scrubbed partisans applauding on cue. The fact that this point even has to be made is upsetting enough. On October 19, let’s be sure to make a democratic point of our own.

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This page is an archive of entries from September 2015 listed from newest to oldest.

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