The new Veterans Affairs Minister, Julian Fantino, visited the Island last week during a brief flurry of interest in P.E.I. affairs on behalf of the Harper government. Perhaps you noticed.
If you did, you also might have noticed the complete coincidence of Fantino and other prominent Conservatives posing for pictures and handing out cash, just as Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberal caucus were gathering on the Island.
Politics is just full of coincidences.
But still, it makes sense for a new minister to come have a look around the shop at the DVA in Charlottetown, show the flag and act interested. After all, Fantino just got a pretty decent promotion, from minister of state to minister of a small but real department. He went from 28th in cabinet precedence to 19th.
The new man in charge didn’t say much, other than he doesn’t think there will be further cuts at the DVA offices in Charlottetown. That’s good news. Or more accurately, it’s good news if you believe Fantino and also believe he’ll have much to say about it.
Fantino is a political experiment of the Harper government that has fallen a trifle flat. The former Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, who started out as a mall security guard, was portrayed as a Conservative star candidate in the Toronto area back in 2010.
He was supposed to send a law-and-order message to the Conservative base and to voters in suburban Toronto, where important seats were won for the party the next year. The whole star candidate idea struck many people as odd, because Fantino’s policing career was embroiled in controversies. In Toronto, there was an issue around an illegal wiretap of his boss, the chair of the Police Services Board. As chief in London, Ont., he oversaw a police operation targeted solely at gay men.
Later, as head of the Toronto police, he wrongly accused a man of being involved in child pornography. Tormented, the man committed suicide.
Fantino didn’t knock himself out exposing corruption inside the Toronto police. Toronto cops were accused of beating suspects, accepting bribes and protecting officers accused of wrongdoing. The chief personally shut down an internal corruption investigation into his former unit, the drug squad.
Over his time as head of the Toronto Police Service, taxpayers paid out more than $30 million in legal fees and settlement costs in suits over police behaviour and actions. When an organization is in court that much, you have to wonder about the judgment and abilities of the top manager.
Fantino eventually retired from police work, but evidently saw himself as the raw material for political office. He pondered running for mayor of the municipality of Vaughan, but eventually decided the federal scene was more his thing.
Prime Minister Harper agreed and showed up in person to help Fantino campaign in the 2010 Vaughan byelection. While he was there, the PM announced $190 million in financing for local businesses.
Call that another one of those weird political coincidences.
Harper soon put Fantino into the cabinet, where he began his round of second fiddle-playing to other ministers. First he was named minister of state for seniors, which Canadians are hardly aware of as a cabinet post. Then he was sent over to play junior minister to Peter MacKay at National Defence.
MacKay wasn’t about to have Fantino messing about in defence matters and soon he was shuffled off to International Cooperation, which is the current term for foreign aid and development.
In that job, Fantino had an opportunity to help people in desperate parts of the world. But that didn’t really happen. In fact, many in the international aid community were skeptical about the idea of appointing a former policeman to the post in the first place.
His achievements in the job suggested to some aid groups that the Harper government has limited interest in their causes. That is, unless they promote something the Conservatives oppose or oppose something they support.
Then, it’s nothing but trouble from Ottawa.
Now Fantino is in veterans affairs, which really could use strong and effective leadership. At a minimum, the department has to be managed skillfully. But there are also emerging issues with veterans which will require wise judgment.
We’ll soon know whether Fantino can provide that skill and judgment and whether will he have the cabinet weight to make things happen.
Dan Leger is a Halifax-based writer and commentator.