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Fantino's exit from Veteran's Affairs shows image matters, but substance remains an issue

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Just last week, on New Year’s Day in fact, I was reading my Daily Gleaner and came across a guest commentary by Julian Fantino. I read it with interest, to see whether he was finally going to apologize for the way he as Minister specifically, and his government in general, treat veterans. I realized he wouldn’t have been the author, and that the essay would have had to have been if not written, at least approved by the PMO. But an admission that he screwed up, followed by a pledge to learn from that and do better, I thought, would be a good way to try to start off the New Year on a better footing.

But alas, it was not to be. Not a word of attrition, just a feeble attempt at damage control.

Fast forward five days and Fantino is gone. Not from cabinet, but from Veteran’s Affairs.

It is a move that was long overdo, but the fact the Prime Minister finally made it says something about him, and about the importance of communications.

Prime Minister Harper’s habit is to defend his Ministers no matter how badly they screw up. On the other hand, he is very calculating and going into an election year he knew the danger of a continuing war with veterans. So the latter trumps the former.

Fantino meantime, is a study in the importance of image to political success.

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When you think of Fantino, what image comes to mind? Is it the one of him ignoring the wife of a veteran with PTSD as she tries to chase him down an Ottawa hallway, or the one of him walking out on veterans after he left them waiting 70 minutes for a promised meeting, and not being able to handle it when they were upset?

He could have done all kinds of wonderful things for veterans after those incidents, but the fact they were caught on camera pretty much determines that those images will remain forever how he will be defined.

That’s the image, but on the substance side there were problems too, and they continue. Promising $200 million in new spending for veteran’s mental health, but ignoring to add that that was to be over the next 50 years, a detail that surfaced only later. In fact, that announcement itself smelled of damage control because it came just before the Auditor-General’s report critical of the way the government treats its veterans who have PTSD.

And the list goes on. Politically, changing the Minister perhaps deals with the image problem of a Minister that doesn’t appear to particularly like veterans, and certainly didn’t seem to have much time to bother with their problems. But it doesn’t dismiss the bigger issue of a government who’s talk about respecting veterans hasn’t been backed up by action.

Removing a problematic Minister may be part of the solution, but the bigger problem remains, of a government that has earned the reputation of indifference by continuing to come up short in service delivery to veterans.

The new Minister of Veterans Affairs has his work cut out for him. A former soldier, he may be able to empathize in a way Fantino never could. That would be a start. Or at the very least, if he performs his duties without ticking veterans off so much, that would be refreshing too.

 

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