Top of Harper’s to-do list

We all have our little rituals on our first day back in the office in a new year. Some of us delete old emails. Others might start filling in a new calendar.

We all have our little rituals on our first day back in the office in a new year.

Some of us delete old emails. Others might start filling in a new calendar.

Still others dump their inept veterans affairs ministers and meet with the irritating premier of the largest province.

Clearing off your election year to-do list if you’re Prime Minister Stephen Harper means, suddenly, dealing with the daily toothache that was Julian Fantino in Veterans Affairs and bickering with the aggressive Kathleen Wynne, which was so last year.

These were two things Harper had to do, but the governing Harper didn’t always do what others felt he must.

The campaigning Harper is a different man.

Fantino had lost the confidence of veterans and created nothing but havoc in a portfolio that Conservatives should hold near and dear. There are few optics more damaging for a government than sending our young men and women off to war then ignoring them, shortchanging them and, in Fantino’s case, also lecturing them upon their return.

But where once he might have hunkered down, election-year Harper demoted his man Fantino in broad daylight on a working day, ignoring the urge to act during the Christmas break when holiday festivities and official inertia provide cover of darkness.

He didn’t exactly invite inquiring media eyes into Rideau Hall, but he did (almost) exactly what the opposition parties had urged him to do, he didn’t wait until nobody was watching Fantino and, even more remarkably, he replaced him with the man touted by so many of the pundits who Harper’s office likes to ignore.

Erin O’Toole, an air force veteran and MP for Durham, is the communicator Fantino is not and appears to have the empathy for our veterans that Fantino lacked.

Fantino remains in cabinet, moved back into the associate defence minister’s post he previously held, but he is getting harder to hide no matter his value as an electoral asset and fundraiser in southern Ontario so crucial in this year’s vote.

As foreshadowing goes, a year-end interview in which the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge asked Harper if he still had confidence in Fantino will suffice.

“Well, you know — you know, Peter, ah, you know the — you know what the answer to that question is. You don’t have to ask it,’’ Harper said.

What he meant?

“He’s toast, but I’m not going to announce it on the CBC in an interview.’’

Similarly, Harper had no choice but to meet Wynne.

A festering public relations battle, started by the Ontario premier, was being won by Wynne and there was no upside for the prime minister to be caught up in such a battle with the popular premier.

He would be dogged by questions at each stop in Ontario. It played to the unflattering perception that he was uninterested in the province of his birth and he was more keen on using a Liberal premier who is close to Justin Trudeau as an enemy, rather than a rightful partner in the country.

Harper was understandably stung by Wynne’s self-serving, mid-campaign characterization of his “smirk” during a private meeting, but Monday’s meeting before the world junior gold-medal hockey game at the Air Canada Centre was inevitable.

The substance of the meeting, however, will likely be less important than the post-game spin because relations will take more than a single meeting to thaw.

O’Toole’s appointment does not necessarily guarantee peace with veterans and the portfolio has been a curious black hole for this government.

He has also not bought peace with Wynne with one meeting.

There are other trains heading down a tunnel toward Harper and he can’t turn around the price of oil or wave away the Mike Duffy trial with the ease with which he can shuffle a minister or set up a meeting.

But with an eye on the coming election, there will be other items on Harper’s “fix-it” list.

Take a look at other issues where he is out of step with Canadians.

Here’s one suggestion — Harper may have dismissed the timing as “crazy” to place unilateral regulations on Canada’s oil and gas industry, but with gas prices so low, this would be an optimal time to impose some type of levy, in line with British Columbia’s model or a more modest proposal such as Alberta’s “tech fund,” which Harper praised.

Movement on the environment would be a major, but needed, item on any prime ministerial to-do list.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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