A Clash of Grumpy Old Men or a Multi-faceted Teachable Moment?

Occasionally an event occurs that has so many aspects that it can be used to represent most of the issues raised in a university course. The conflict that surfaced between Veterans Affairs Minister Fantino and Canadian war veterans brings out many of the issues that I discuss in the public management course I am teaching this term. (I showed Terry Milewski’s story that ran on the CBC, which is available on YouTube under “Fantino meeting disrespects veterans.)

The confrontation came about over a decision by the Harper Government to shut Veterans Affairs offices in eight locations (Kelowna, Saskatoon, Brandon, Thunder Bay, Windsor, Sydney, Charlottetown, and Cornerbrook) where demand apparently has declined, and consolidate the department’s activities with Service Canada. The issue is whether integrated service delivery actually improves service. In some cases it does; for example, Service Ontario offices allow users to renew their health card, driver’s license, and license plate in one visit, rather than two or three visits to different government offices (see my post of April 7, 2011). But aren’t the needs of veterans so complex (case management involving physical infirmities, psychological disabilities, and various transfer payments) that they continue to merit dedicated service?

At his meeting with the veterans, Minister Fantino steadfastly defended the government’s decision, as cabinet solidarity would dictate. Pressure in favor of the decision undoubtedly came from the Department of Finance and Treasury Board Subcommittee on Government Administration, both charged with a cost-saving agenda. One wonders how Fantino and his department responded to the proposals to close their offices when they were still in the discussion stage. Did they have counter-proposals that might have been more acceptable to their constituency, such as collocating Veterans’ Affairs offices with Service Canada offices and ensuring that veterans, at least initially, would have a designated service queue, rather than having to be served in a common queue with all other clients? Developing a counter-proposal would have been the work of the department.

Perhaps Fantino might have taken a more aggressive stance personally, and threatened to resign from cabinet if the offices were closed. I think his threat would have been very credible. At age 71, Fantino is already receiving a generous pension from his service as top cop in Toronto and Ontario. He won the heavily Italian constituency Vaughan from the Liberals for the first time in recent memory. The Conservative Party of Canada probably needs Julian Fantino more than he needs the Conservative Party.

Fantino was late for his meeting with the veterans because he was at a cabinet committee meeting. Why didn’t he simply leave the cabinet committee meeting? Fantino’s handling of the meeting with veterans wasn’t very effective. Of course they informed the media in advance and were looking for a confrontation. And Fantino, by adopting a posture of standing rather than sitting and cutting off a spokesman for the sin of finger-pointing, provided it. Despite the bad hand cabinet had dealt him, a minister with better social skills and a less confrontational demeanor could have handled the situation more effectively.

Another thing I mentioned to the students was the veterans’ media strategy. Elderly men with lapels covered in decorations for bravery and distinguished service getting emotional at a press conference will always win public sympathy.

Prime Minister Harper defended the government’s cost-cutting policy in the House of Commons, as would be expected given the government’s over-riding objective of reducing expenditures to balance the budget, as well as his own uncompromising personality. This doesn’t mean Harper will indefinitely stand by this minister.

What will Julian Fantino’s political fate be? He demonstrated himself to be a clumsy, inept, arrogant, and unappealing defender of government policy. Perhaps in a few months Harper will have a don-like discussion with Fantino, telling him not to expect to remain in cabinet if the Conservatives are re-elected. The sub-text of that message would be that it is time for Fantino to take one for the team, and announce his retirement, so the party can find a more presentable candidate to contest Vaughan.

The Veterans’ Affairs story is now off the front pages, but I expect it will continue to simmer in the months ahead. Inserting in the budget initiatives to improve online services for veterans, to give them hiring preference for public service jobs, and to increase funeral and burial payments are all efforts to mollify what had been one of the government’s steadfastly supportive constituencies. We’ll see how this story plays out on both the service delivery and the political levels as the Conservatives prepare for the next election.


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