Leadership is a tough business.
Leadership is convincing people you’re competent at something that you are, almost by definition, woefully under-qualified for.
Winston Churchill was a bungling military strategist when he was put in charge of the navy during World War I, losing two rather important battles and scores of English troops before becoming England’s great hero of the war.
Ronald Reagan was a B-list celebrity who made a few nice speeches, and recorded some ridiculous psychobabble about how medicare would lead to socialism, before somehow becoming Governor of California.
Joseph Howe — the patron saint of trying-to-stop-Nova-Scotia-from-joining-confederation — was a newspaperman with a penchant for getting sued and who only rose to power in government after not getting shot in a duel.
Creating leadership mythos is hard. You’ve got to take your utter lack of qualification and trick people into thinking otherwise. Then you’ve got to not screw it up.
So when Julian Fantino came into government, maybe he suffered from the curse of high expectations.
Fantino, after all, was the Chief of Police for Toronto. That’s no easy job. I mean, never mind that he presided over the force like a goddang lunatic, trying to quash civilians’ right to protest, raiding gay bathhouses and coming under fire amid numerous allegations of corruption.
But, putting all that aside: chief of police!
So when Fantino came into cabinet after a 2010 byelection, eyes glazed over with starry wonder as lookers-on watched his rise to national prominence. This guy is a leader.
But then, like a mangled tire that a clueless motorist won’t stop pumping air into, Fantino’s career leaked air wildly as he was promoted and promoted again. From Minister of State for Seniors, to Associate Minister of National Defence, to International Development Minister, Fantino struggled to keep his head above water.
In Defence, Fantino can probably blame the Lockheed Martin and their stupid planes more than his own ineptitude, yet his complete inability to communicate the government’s position should have probably raised a few red flags.
Fantino’s defensive strategy on the F-35s in Question Period was such:
1. Say the opposition is wrong.
2. Say something about jobs and “men and women” in the Canadian Forces.
3. Reiterate that the opposition is wrong.
He did that for months. Months. Before the government finally conceded the point.
So, when the heat died down and Fantino was shuffled out, he was given a job that required flying around the world and giving food to orphans. Probably the best thing imaginable for a minister with seemingly no knack whatsoever for politics.
In International Development, he had a year to show some leadership. This was a blank slate — there was nothing but opportunities to shine. He could have picked any ol’ country with a refugee problem and made it his pet project (okay, he did, it was Haiti, and then he froze their aid for some reason.) But aside from a few photos of him comforting impoverished children and that time he posted an obviously partisan letter to the department’s website, his time there was so painfully forgettable that by the time that they announced that his job was being swallowed by Foreign Affairs, most people probably forgot he was still a minister.
The story goes that Fantino is well-liked by the Prime Minister. The ex-top cop is supposedly a valued contributor at the cabinet table. Just, apparently, not anywhere else.
And so he went merrily along to Veterans Affairs. The departmental equivalent of bubble wrap.
He had one job — one job! — and that was to not screw up.
Julian Fantino could have sat in his office with a Gameboy and played three years’ worth of Tetris and would have had back-slaps aplenty for his good managerial skills.
Julian Fantino’s office has done a bang-up job of accusing the veterans of acting out of self financial interest, ignoring the plight of Canada’s ex-soldiers with such fantastic indifference that he was chased down a hallway by the furious partner of a veteran, shuttering offices on the frontlines of the fight against PTSD (and replacing them with automated telephone systems and the internet) or handing back over $1 billion in seeming obliviousness to the needs on-the-ground.
And you know what? That could all be politically non-toxic, coming from just about anyone else.
After all, this government really has taken the issue seriously, by pumping money and services into where it appears to be most needed. There’s two problems with it, though — it, like any other government program, isn’t being rolled-out fast enough; and the front-line staffers who should be the face of this new spending have been canned, or shuffled off to a remote tundra.
But, just think: what if Julian Fantino had a modicum of leadership?
For one, he would have fought to shut-down that lawsuit that they’re bound to lose — the one saying that the government has no duty to look after veterans, callously arguing that the permanently disabled veteran who will only be receiving $100,000 to cover a lifetime of medical bills and lost income are just out for a cheap buck.
Two, he would take the lesser political hit of sitting in a room and being yelled at for the sake of dodging the larger political bullet of looking like an out-of-touch jerk. He would do what Laurie Hawn did last November, when he stood in front of a room of pissed-off veterans and did a bang-up job of defending the broad strokes of his government’s record.
Three, he should have actually showed some leadership in his department by making sure that resources were being sent where they were needed, like by hiring more case workers, rather than handing the money back to the Treasury Board so he could play the role of teacher’s efficiencies-finding pet.
It’s not too late for Julian Fantino to find leadership, but it’s feeling more-and-more like Harper is looking to lend the embattled disappointment a bit of his own. That’s unfortunate.
MPs like Erin O’Toole and Laurie Hawn — both of whom served in the Canadian Forces — would make superb replacements for Fantino, neither of whom would need babysitting or hand-holding.
It’s time that the Prime Minister show leadership and escort Fantino on his walk into the political wilderness.
Photo credit: CBC
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