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The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - Will Stewart, Marit Stiles and Bernie Farber - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.

It's not been a good week for Stephen Harper, with calls for the resignation of Minister of Veterans Affairs Julian Fantino. Revelations that $1.13 billion for Canada's veterans was left unspent over eight years, as well as the Auditor General criticizing the government's treatment of veterans with health issues, have left political observers scratching their heads. Aren't veterans the natural constituency of Harper's CPC?


Bernie Farber:

I’m not really sure where to begin…you see despite my political leanings I have known Julian Fantino for over 25 years. When he was Chief of Police at York Region and Toronto as well as head of the OPP, we worked closely in a number of areas. That said, and despite my respect for him as a cop, he has had a lousy stint as Veterans Affairs Minister.

What Fantino needs to learn is that he cannot apply police tactics to politics. Hence the infamous finger wagging incident, his discomfort talking to veterans and their families cannot be shrugged off. He is a Minister of one of this country’s most sensitive portfolios. His lack of grace and what appears to be his lack of control over his staff - that very well may have blindsided him on the expenditure issue - has turned into a scandal of such serious proportions that he very much needs to consider resigning his post.

Will Stewart:

Look, it is clear that Fantino has not had a good few days, weeks, or even months. The criticism is mounting, and with good reason. This is particularly damaging for the Harper government, but not just in the obvious way. Most people would say that the Harper Conservatives need to treat veterans and the military better than other parties. It is core to their belief system and, of course, to their base.

Military, and the veterans that come with military action, have been thrust to the forefront in these uncertain times. Not to mention Harper’s annual show of “force” in the artic each year. This policy area is more important to the CPC brand than others. The real reason that this is a big problem for Harper is actually the narrative that is unfolding.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, the problems at Veterans Affairs have now gone beyond the department. It is now a government problem, and with Harper defending Fantino in Question Period, the issue is now bigger.

Marit Stiles:

It boggles the mind that the Conservatives have bungled this file so very badly. As Bernie and Will have noted, this is a government that sees itself as a military booster.

And while Minister Fantino himself has shown a remarkable lack of respect and behaved, frankly, very badly toward veterans, I think it would be a shame to not point out that it is not only the minister who has failed but the government itself.

The list of issues is astounding: shuttering nine veterans' service centres, the very controversial Veterans Charter and the $4 million spent by this government on an ad campaign to defend themselves over complaints about a lack of veterans services. Shocking.

From a media relations perspective, it's hard to believe how any government would allow itself to look like it is hard on veterans. Not to mention, it's just the wrong thing to do.

I think it's another sign of a government that's lost its way and crumbling.

Bernie Farber:

I'm with Marit on this. The manner in which Veterans Affairs, has mishandled this Ministry comes straight from the Stephen Harper playbook. Callous indifference to the vulnerable, the attitude of “my way or the highway” is something taught by the PM and sadly his ministers follow suit.

We saw the same attitude displayed by Immigration Minister Chris Alexander when he tried to withhold vital healthcare from refugee children; or from Minister Leona Aglukkag, who hid behind a newspaper or chatted on her phone in QP while being asked about her constituents who were allegedly “resorting to landfill to scrounge for food."

To me this is the sign of a supercilious government who simply could not care less. 

Will Stewart:

Look, let’s be clear. The Conservatives, or any party, simply has to do more for veterans. Look no further than the outpouring of support for the two members of the armed forces tragically killed recently.

Politicians of all stripes also don’t serve themselves or veterans well with some of the rhetoric in the House of Commons of late.

But it is clear from the comments by Merit and Bernie that they are also chasing a bigger narrative here, and injecting just as much politics into this as they are compassion.

In the political calculations in Ottawa, however, this issue is certainly one that the CPC has to get ahead of now.

The NDP and the Liberals will not win a general election on this issue, but this is now another proof point for the opposition parties to use, saying that the Conservatives cannot manage government, that they are out of touch with average Canadians, and that they lack compassion. And THAT plays into their narrative for election victory.

Just look at their comments as a proof point.

Failure on this policy file now is a Harper problem and that means anything is possible. To be fair, he has faced this type of mismanagement issue before and has beaten it. For example, we really do not hear anything about environmental problems any more.

But the closer we get to an election, the bigger risk that this policy file poses.

I think that is why you see the PMO sending over a staffer. It is not about “third party management” as the NDP try to spin. It is about good, smart people bringing their skills to the table to fix this problem. Our veterans deserve it.

Marit Stiles:

I wish it were so simple, and I truly hope it is. Our veterans deserve for this to fixed, and permanently.

I think it would be wrong, however, to suggest that this is only a communications issue or a one-time trip up. This goes to fundamental values.

Will talks about the environment not being an 'issue' right now. Errr, not sure I buy that. The difference between the abysmal record of the Conservatives on the environment and the abysmal treatment of veterans by the Conservatives, is that Conservatives see veterans as an accessible voter group. Environmentalists? Not so much.

Veterans are not only connected to our society through the military, but they are certainly defined by their service and the hardships they had to endure. And the assistance they deserve and require as veterans requires respect and understanding of a deeper role for G=government in our society.

That's not in keeping with the approach of the Harper Conservative government. It flies in the face of their attack on the civil service.

I'm hopeful, for the sake of the veterans affected by this mess, that Mr. Fantino will step down and that the government will do the right thing and restore and indeed bolster services for veterans. But I fear that at the end of the day, we're more likely to see more ads than we are any action.

About The Salon

Will Stewart served as Chief of Staff to Ontario ministers of energy, social services and children, and is a respected commentator on national issues; Marit Stiles is a federal and Ontario NDP strategist; Bernie Farber is a former Ontario Liberal candidate and one of Canada's leading human rights experts.
Posted date : December 04, 2014

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