Stephen Harper kicks off election year with Veterans Affairs shuffle
Can a former soldier turned rookie MP undo the damage done to his party's pro-military reputation?
Given his characteristic inscrutability, we'll likely never know exactly when — or, for that matter, why — Stephen Harper finally lost confidence in his veterans affairs minister.
In fact, we can't even be absolutely certain that he did.
The prime minister's office provided a pro forma statement that offered little explanation for the one-minister shuffle that took place at Rideau Hall on what was, at least for most of official Ottawa, the first day back after the holiday break.
What we do know is that first-term MP Erin O'Toole was elevated from the ranks of the mid-bench to cabinet to take over the controversy-plagued veterans affairs portfolio from Julian Fantino.
(In a quirk of political synchronicity, O'Toole was elected to the House in the 2012 byelection triggered by the departure of Bev Oda, who, prior to Fantino, held the record for longest sustained period as embattled minister under this prime minister. And it was Fantino who took over Oda's international cooperation portfolio upon her departure.)
Meanwhile, Fantino has returned to his erstwhile associate minister post at National Defence — although not, as was the case during his earlier tenure, to oversee procurement.
According to the statement issued by the prime minister's office, Fantino's reassignment will allow him to "support" Defence Minister Rob Nicholson on matters related to "Arctic sovereignty, information technology security and foreign intelligence."
It's worth noting that if his new responsibilities include the operations and oversight of Canada's electronic spy agency, Fantino could very well find himself spending nearly as much time on his feet in the Commons as he did in his previous job.
Fantino on defensive throughout fall sitting
Even if he doesn't, he'll almost certainly have a prominent role on the Greater Toronto Area party fundraising circuit during the leadup to the next election, as Vaughan and its surrounding areas — as well as the Italian-Canadian community — are crucial points on the Conservatives' projected path to victory.
It's that very same looming date with the electorate that likely led the prime minister to conclude it was time for a changing of the ministerial guard at Veterans Affairs.
After all, both the New Democrats and the Liberals spent much of the fall sitting hammering away at Fantino — and, by proxy, the prime minister and his party — over his handling of everything from disability payments to mental health services to the closure of regional offices.
There's every reason to think that both parties are planning to pick up where they left off when the House returns later this month — and carry on right through the coming campaign.
It will now fall to O'Toole — himself a former soldier, albeit not a combat veteran — to do his best to restore, in the minds of voters, the Conservatives to what they see as their rightful position as the most pro-military party on the ballot.
Fortunately for the newly minted minister, he's had some practice defending his government's record on veterans.
Communications to blame?
Before being elevated to cabinet, he was a regular fixture on the nightly political panel circuit — which, as a result of the opposition fervour on the veterans file, meant spending a good chunk of time fending off demands for Fantino's resignation.
During those exchanges, O'Toole made the case that the ongoing difficulties with the veterans affairs file were mostly a matter of miscommunication.
He's about to get the chance to put that theory to the test — subject, that is, to the approval of the Prime Minister's Office, which still has ultimate signing authority over ministerial messaging.
If he succeeds in quelling the criticism, O'Toole should be prepared for a sudden drop in his public profile: there is, after all, little fodder for opposition or public outrage in a program that is working as intended and expected. And there's a reason why Veterans Affairs used to be considered a suitable stopping-point for ministers not yet ready to resign, but not planning on running for re-election.
But if O'Toole manages to put a lid on the simmering dissatisfaction of veterans, it would almost certainly bump him to the front of the line for a post-election cabinet promotion — provided, that is, his party is still in power after the dust settles.
And that, it seems, should serve as a powerful incentive to impress the boss in the interim. More than one job — including his own — may depend on it.