The decision to make a senior member of Harper's media team Fantino's new chief of staff makes it clear the minister has lost control of the veterans file, Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair declared during question period.
"The prime minister doesn't trust the minister to manage his own office, he puts in one of his own henchmen but he lets him take care of thousands of veterans," Mulcair said.
"Since the prime minister clearly no longer trusts his minister, what is he waiting for to throw him out?"
The move wasn't a big deal, Harper retorted, saying all ministers have chiefs of staff.
"I gather even the leader of the NDP has a chief of staff, obviously watching over the slow descent of that particular party," he deadpanned, to the delight of the Tory caucus.
Fantino wasn't the only minister Harper found himself defending Tuesday. The prime minister was equally effusive in his praise of Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who is embroiled in a controversy of her own.
During question period Monday, she was caught on camera reading a newspaper instead of listening to opposition questions about the high cost of food in the North and people foraging in dumps in her own riding of Rankin Inlet.
Aglukkaq should put down the paper and start doing her job, Mulcair said.
That's exactly what she's doing, Harper replied. "There is no doubt the people in Nunavut have never had stronger representation."
Throughout his tenure, Harper has stood by many a cabinet minister embroiled in controversy and rarely pushes anyone off the front benches, waiting instead for cabinet shuffles to deal with poor performers.
But the staffing switch in Fantino's office illustrates how vulnerable the Conservatives feel they are on the veterans file as they scramble to shore up their relationship with ex-soldiers ahead of next year's election.
In October, Harper appointed former chief of defence staff Walt Natynczyk as deputy veterans affairs minister — a move he described Tuesday as an "excellent choice."
So far, though, it hasn't helped keep the Tories out of trouble with veterans.
Revelations that $1.13 billion in funding went unspent at Veterans Affairs over nearly eight years were followed by an auditor general's report that excoriated the way the government was treating help-seeking veterans.
Lingering confusion and anger about a Conservative pledge of $200 million for mental health services for veterans and whether the money would flow over six years or 50 has also refused to die down.
The money included $18 million for clinics, with a further $152 million to flow throughout the lifetime of the program, which was originally understood to be six years.
But with younger veterans having access to those benefits over their lifetimes, a published report said it could take up to half a century for the money to be fully spent.
Generally accepted accounting principles indicate that while the money will be available over the lifetimes of eligible veterans, it has been allocated over a six-year period, Harper explained Tuesday.
In any event, the damage has been done, with Fantino away in Italy for Second World War commemorations while the controversy raged. His first day back in the House since then was Monday.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the government has the wrong priorities when it comes to veterans.
"The prime minister's priority is tax breaks for the wealthy instead of meeting our sacred obligation to our veterans," Trudeau said.
"His new plan is worth even less per year than the savings from closing nine veterans' service offices. It is by now clear to all that the prime minister owes veterans an apology."
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