Man (not quite) overboard! The PMO half-shuffles Fantino

Paul Wells on Stephen Harper’s oddly uncharacteristic half-measure in moving Fantino to national defence
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

I feel oddly proprietary about the news that Julian Fantino will no longer be Canada’s minister of Veterans Affairs. In a rare guest visit to the CBC’s At Issue panel 340 days ago, all the regular panellists said Fantino’s days were numbered. I said no. If they’re right 340 days later, are they right? If I stayed right for 340 days, does that count? Bragging rights are at stake.

And what are we to make of this peculiarity of the Prime Minister’s decision: Fantino is out from Veterans Affairs, where he had an unfortunate propensity for making combat veterans cry—but he’s not out of the cabinet altogether. He’ll be an “associate minister of national defence,” according to a PMO press release, where he’ll “support the minister of National Defence in the areas of Arctic sovereignty, information technology and foreign intelligence.” These are way more important to Canadian security than the proper treatment of its veterans. Fantino, not one to skip a beat, is already making such an argument, in a release he has distributed to reporters:

“Having served for over 40 years in law enforcement, I have an acute appreciation for the solemn duty government must undertake to protect its citizens and sovereignty. In my oath, I pledge to forcefully defend Canada’s sovereignty and national security, and continue to stand with our men and women in uniform, who uphold and protect those sacred values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.”

And then there’s Stephen Harper, who, in his own news release, describes Fantino as a key member of a refreshed national-security team, with rookie Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole.

Our government remains focused on the priorities of Canadians: jobs, the economy, safe communities and standing up for Canadian values at home and abroad. With this in mind, Mr. Fantino and Mr. O’Toole have been asked to draw on their considerable knowledge and experience to take on important portfolios. I am confident that they will deliver results and provide strong leadership as they go about addressing their duties and responsibilities.

This suggests Fantino constitutes a new middle case in the exotic bestiary of troubled Harper ministers. In a recent book, I said the Prime Minister always backs colleagues under fire—until they become too great a liability, and are given the unceremonious Guergis/Oda heave-ho, never to be heard from again. Fantino seems to be somewhere in between. Two days ago, he wrote in the Sun papers about the challenges awaiting him at Veterans Affairs, suggesting he planned to stick around longer than 48 hours. Now he’s out, except not really. Except sort of.

What purpose is served by this demure two-step? If he’s good enough for Arctic sovereignty, why was he not good enough for Veterans? If the PM needs him out at Veterans, why does he need him handling “foreign intelligence”?

Stephen Harper is not normally given to half measures. In moving Fantino, while vaunting his “considerable knowledge and experience,” the PM has acknowledged a problem while refusing to fix it. An oddly tentative move.