Veterans Affairs was supposed to be a strong point for the pro-military Harper Conservatives. It has, instead, become somewhat of a weak link under Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino.
Fantino was supposed to be a star candidate when first recruited by PM Stephen Harper, and he proved himself by getting elected to Parliament in November 2010 after a tight race. The Globe and Mail noted at the time that Fantino had “beat the Liberals [candidate Tony Genco] out of one of their safest seats in Ontario, one they had held for 22 years.”
In early January 2011, Fantino was appointed minister of state for seniors. At that time, I wrote, “It is too early to assess Fantino’s parliamentary abilities and a cabinet post of any kind seems premature.”
Back then, I was concerned that Fantino’s inept performance as Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner during the Caledonia land dispute in the mid-2000s, which I saw as a stain on his public record that should have precluded him from receiving any position higher than parliamentary secretary for, at least, a couple of years while he proved himself worthy of a full seat at the cabinet table.
In fairness to Fantino, though, he seemed to do a decent job in the seniors portfolio and later as Associate Minister of National Defence after the 2011 federal election and as Minister for International Cooperation in 2012.
It was in his current position that Fantino seemed to become especially politically tone deaf and gaffe prone. Fantino did little to endear himself to veterans when he showed up “very late” for a scheduled appointment with a group of them who had gone to Ottawa to discuss their concerns with the minister. And when he did show up, his attitude was one of take-it-or-leave-it.
The minister also botched and clumsily handled an attempt by a veteran’s spouse to speak with him following his appearance at the House committee on veterans’ affairs in May 2014. By early June 2014, Tim Harper of thestar.com was moved to note that Fantino “appears to have had his empathy surgically removed.” And there were calls for his resignation from the opposition and some in the media.
The hapless minister has lost what credibility he may have once had. He has been unable to adequately explain why his department was unable to spend its appropriation within the budget year, which meant Veterans Affairs was required to return $1.1-billion dollars in unused funding to the treasury. There is a reasonable explanation, of course, but he seems incapable of getting his point across.
This seeming lack of critical communication skill comes at a time when critics blame inadequate funding for many of the challenges facing our veterans. And especially when auditor general Michael Ferguson has just released a damaging report of the hurdles many veterans face while trying to access mental health services.
The federal government’s other recently botched and confusing announcement of $200-million over six years—or is it 50 years—to support mental health needs of military members, veterans and their families has done little to ease the pressure on Fantino.
All this is like chumming shark infested waters as, smelling blood, opposition party members and political pundits now harass Fantino daily with demands for his resignation.
As reported in the National Post, “Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair called Fantino’s recent absence from the Commons an act of “cowardice,” and wondered aloud why he continues to have the confidence of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.” (For the record, Fantino had been in Italy to help mark the 70th anniversary of the Second World War’s Italian campaign. He was not hiding from anyone. Had he missed this symbolic event, he’d have been equally criticised.)
I have zero confidence in this minister, however. As far as I’m concerned he has shown neither an once of respect to veterans—men more worthy than he, I suspect—nor compassion for those who served their country and proved they were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Apparently, there have been recent changes to Veteran Affairs, with its chief of staff leaving, and retired general Walter Natynczyk becoming the department’s top bureaucrat. Fantino’s parliamentary secretary, Parm Gill, has also been taking more of a role in question period.
Fantino, though, is clearly the wrong man for this particular job. Harper’s Conservatives talk the talk when it comes to veteran affairs, it’s high time they walk the walk. And, for this to be clear to all, this minister should be replaced.