Vets versus Vaughan: Harper’s calculus for keeping Fantino in cabinet

OTTAWA — Veterans versus Vaughan.

That, it would appear, was the choice before Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the waning days of 2014 as controversy raged over the Conservative government’s treatment of Canada’s military men and women.

In the eight years he’d been in government, Harper had expended considerable effort to curry favour with the country’s former soldiers, as well as to secure Vaughan, the tactically vital suburban riding north of Toronto.

And in his capacity as veterans affairs minister, Vaughan MP Julian Fantino was steadily undermining the government’s credibility with a core Conservative constituency.

But it was neither the votes of veterans nor those in the affluent suburb that the Conservatives were worried about. It was votes in the rest of Canada.

As the 2015 election looms, a key challenge for the Conservatives remains finding a soft side that can appeal to swing voters in suburban areas who don’t respond to the tough-talking Tories on crime or foreign policy.

Being seen as unfriendly to veterans is a liability, said Dan Mader, a former chief of staff for Fantino who now works as a consultant with StrategyCorp.

“There are few things that everyone — no matter where they are on the political spectrum — can agree on, but one of those things (is) that we as a country owe a duty to our veterans and that the government should be looking out for them,” Mader said Tuesday in an interview.

“So any government that is seen as not doing so is at risk.”

A recent National Defence poll suggested that the challenges faced by veterans and returning soldiers were top of mind when respondents were asked what they knew about the Canadian Armed Forces.

Some of those challenges predate Fantino’s time in the portfolio, which began in 2013; including an ongoing court case in which the government argues it has no “social contract” with former soldiers.

“It’s not a question of the individual minister; we’ve had five ministers of veterans affairs,” said NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. “Mr. Fantino is simply the most recent one carrying out Stephen Harper’s wishes.”

But the perception that veterans were being poorly treated was Fantino’s to wear, thanks to two caught-on-camera incidents. In one, he argues with a veteran; in the other, he brazenly ignores a veteran’s pleading and angry wife.

“Decisions that he made were rarely his decisions, especially those which are in the court as we speak,” said retired Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, who has known Fantino for nearly two decades.

“However, someone with a slightly smoother personality might have been able to stickhandle their way through it. Julie, God bless him, he’s been in charge of personnel, police forces, and work within the police all those years and it’s not the type of personality that will be able to stickhandle in the political arena.”

Insiders say other Conservative cabinet ministers bristled at the fact that someone lacking in political finesse had been given such a sensitive file. In the fall, a decision was made that there needed to be a change.

Step one was shaking up the bureaucracy at Veterans Affairs; former chief of defence staff Walt Natynczyk was named deputy minister. Step two saw Stephen Lecce, a long-time political confidante of Fantino’s, arrive from the Prime Minister’s Office to help manage his affairs.

Still, Fantino knew the writing was on the wall, Conservative sources say.

At 72, he could have walked away, saying he wasn’t going to run again in the 2015 campaign, since his nomination meeting had yet to be held.

But there was something keeping him in his seat, MacKenzie suggested.

“Stubbornness,” he said, adding that if Fantino felt he was doing a good job and had something still to offer, there was no reason for him to walk away.

Nor did Harper necessarily want him to leave.

As the story goes in political circles, the two men began forging a relationship when Harper was leader of the opposition and drafting his criminal justice platform in the lead up to the 2005-06 campaign.

As Toronto’s top cop and later head of the Ontario Provincial Police, Fantino had been outspoken about the need for stronger gang and gun laws, and had historically been one of the louder voices in the police community speaking out against the long-gun registry, which caught the Conservatives’ attention.

Harper wooed him personally to run in Vaughan; in Fantino, the prime minister saw a man who could appeal to two key Conservative goals: being the law-and-order party and the party of new Canadians.

Though Fantino had a tough-talking attitude among his fellow police, he was also a beloved son of the Italian-Canadian community, which represents more than 50 per cent of the population in the riding of Vaughan.

“Guys like me who ran against him felt that he was there doing good things for Vaughan and doing good things for Canada,” said Tony Genco, who ran against Fantino for the Liberals in a 2010 byelection, but supported him the following year.

Fantino has his enemies, to be sure — many of them from the days when he was a tough-talking police chief, first in London, Ont., and later in Toronto.

Could the Conservatives win the riding without him?

“Fantino is clearly a factor in the decision-making process of the average voter, but I think people are where the Conservatives are, and he just puts them over the top,” Genco said.

If Fantino endures, it’s because the prime minister still values what he has to add to both policy and politics, Mader said.

“The prime minister can be confident he’s not trying to do a good job hoping to get a more senior position or run for something else one day,” Mader said.

“This is capping off a long career, and he enjoys doing it.”

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