Jim Flaherty may be wrestling the deficit to the ground, but Julian Fantino is fighting a battle he’s not likely to win against a group of former soldiers.
The finance minister predicts he’ll turn a surplus of several billion dollars next year. Helping to make it happen is the Veterans Affairs minister who’s nickel and diming some of Canada’s veterans.
But in defending recent cuts in his department this week, Fantino got into a heated exchange (or in Fantino-speak, open dialogue) with a small group of aging veterans who went to Ottawa asking him to reconsider a controversial decision.
The veterans wanted to let Fantino know that closing eight Veterans Affairs regional offices including one in Charlottetown will cause them real hardship by depriving them of easy access to services they need.
The minister was having none of it, though, arriving more than an hour late for the meeting, then assuring the veterans they’d be just as well served at one of the 650 Service Canada locations. What happened next defies logic. Fantino got into a heated exchange with some of the veterans. One was reduced to tears as he talked about the impending office closures. The minister became especially annoyed with another veteran who dared shake a finger at him. Then he huffed out of the meeting. At least part of sorry affair was caught on video.
Fantino initially released a statement saying he and the veterans had a “candid conversation” during a “roundtable.” He later had a change of heart, apologizing for his behaviour. But somehow, the apology fell a little flat. For starters, it took the minister far too long to figure out he may actually have done something wrong. Or he may have been told, who knows?
In his written apology, Fantino explained he was “very late” for the meeting because a cabinet meeting “ran long.” But that did little to mollify the veterans who, by then, were so upset they were calling for the minister to resign or to be fired.
It didn’t have to end this way.
With a surplus budget now in sight, you’d expect the Conservatives might have enough wiggle room to show genuine respect and courtesy to the retired soldiers. Fantino could have arrived at the meeting (on time), thanked the veterans for coming to Ottawa and actually listened to what they had to say. Then he could have offered them an olive branch by postponing the planned closures pending a review of each office and of the alternate service online and at Service Canada centres. If it’s shown that veterans really are better served by caseworkers they know at their own regional offices, Fantino’s department should pick up the extra cost, which, in terms of overall government spending, would be minimal.
Not a big deal.
But Fantino’s antics made it a big deal, one that could come back to haunt the Tories as they set their sites on the 2015 election.
Had the minister given the veterans the respect they deserved, he could have defused this political bombshell. He didn’t. And now the veterans are fighting mad. Not only do they want Fantino to lose his portfolio, they say they want the entire Conservative government thrown out of office in the next election.
I thought Roy Lamore, one of the veterans who watched the minister stomp out of the meeting, had some timely suggestions for Fantino. “Taught manners is number 1, number 2 to respect the veterans, and number 3, it’s time he better wake up and give us a break on these things.”
But in the House of Commons, Fantino swept aside the criticism and Opposition calls for his resignation. He accused the Opposition and unions representing workers at Veterans Affairs of fear mongering over the planned closures. An Opposition motion to debate the closures was put off until Monday, even though the closures went ahead on Friday. Sit-ins and memorials across punctuated the concern some veterans feel about over the closures.
Fantino and the Harper government have badly mishandled this file and it may well cost them votes in the next election. That aside, ensuring veterans get timely access to the services they need is simply the right thing to do.
- Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.