OTTAWA - Longtime denizens of Parliament Hill know Veterans Affairs as a troublesome, thankless ministerial assignment, but it rarely generates the kind of sustained political heat the Harper government is hoping will dissipate with the coming Christmas break.
Only once the House of Commons rises this week will the Conservatives get a reprieve from daily opposition demands for the ouster of Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, the aftermath of a withering auditor general's report on the treatment of ex-soldiers with mental health problems.
"This has been the kind of situation where the opposition has a field day," said Michael Bliss, a historian and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.
"Like (Aboriginal) Affairs, it can be a terrible ministry, a thankless ministry. That means constant demands and complaints."
It remains an open question to what extent the outrage relates to the bureaucratic blunders exposed in Michael Ferguson's audit — among other revelations — or the perception of Fantino as hard-hearted towards the plight of veterans.
"It takes really skillful ministers to handle portfolios like this," said Bliss, who refrained from passing judgment on Fantino's performance as minister.
Others marvel at his apparent resilience.
"Why he is still around, I don't know," said NDP veterans critic Peter Stoffer, echoing sentiments that have permeated even the rock-ribbed Conservative talk-radio community.
The easy answer, said Bliss, is that Prime Minister Stephen Harper — like Jean Chretien before him — is loath to listen to the howls from the opposition benches and the editorial pages, moving a minister only when its suits him.
It didn't help matters that Fantino was attending commemorations in Italy when the auditor's review came down. Nor did some of the government's scripted answers during question period, which critics have described as either "misleading" or "outright lies."
At times, the Conservatives seemed to take some satisfaction in fanning the flames of anger, accusing the NDP and Liberals of seeking to "protect those bureaucratic jobs at Veterans Affairs, instead of giving the services to the veterans."
The House of Commons is expected to resume in late January, kicking off the sprint to election day, currently scheduled for October 2015.
The Liberals will pick up where they left off, said veterans critic Frank Valeriote, who wants Fantino and his staff to testify at committee hearings in the new year to "explain this whole, colossal fiasco."
Until the quarrel over veterans erupted, the government seemed to have finally found its stride in the fall session — especially in the wake of the Oct. 22 shootings on Parliament Hill that claimed the life of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, who was killed while standing sentry at the National War Memorial.
Gunman Michael Zehaf Bibeau then stormed into the Centre Block, where he died in a hail of bullets at the hands of sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers.
Parliament paid tribute Thursday to the House of Commons security guards and their bravery in the face of the attack — in particular Const. Samearn Son, who was wounded while trying to disarm the attacker.
"His selfless action, putting his own body in harm's way, was a stunning example of bravery and brought further honour and esteem to the protective service," said Speaker Andrew Scheer.
"The response on Oct. 22 was certainly a team effort, as much a result of rigorous training and skilled leadership as it was the product of individual bravery and basic kindness."
Bliss said the government's steady performance ever since has done more to convey credibility than any political attack ad targeting Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau ever could.
Harper's forays on the world stage — whether "shirt-fronting" Russian President Vladimir Putin with a direct demand to "get out of Ukraine" or clearing the final hurdles in a coveted free-trade deal with Europe — also helped burnish Conservative political credentials ahead of next year's election.
And whether one believes it's a good idea or not, there's no denying the government's big-ticket suite of election-ready, family-friendly tax measures — income splitting for eligible families with kids under 18, a bolstered universal child care benefit and a richer child care expense deduction — got more than its share of attention when it was announced in October.
What remains to be seen is the extent of the political damage wrought by the controversy over veterans, long a natural Conservative constituency.
How long it will linger into the new year is uncertain, said Bliss. But a new peril lurks to trip up the government: a precipitous and sustained drop in oil prices, a hurdle that could trip up Finance Minister Joe Oliver's efforts to balance the books.
"If you're thinking about 2015, to my mind, the future is always pretty unknowable and now it's radically unknowable," he said.
"I think all bets are off because of the collapse of oil prices, and there's great volatility in the electorate."
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