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Newly-appointed Associate Minister of National Defence Julian Fantino leaves Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, January 5, 2015.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Three strikes, and you're safe. That is, if you're Julian Fantino, the minister who has been a liability in more than one portfolio.

Mr. Fantino was purged from Veterans Affairs, where he managed to become a symbol of uncaring for those who served. But instead of being cut loose from cabinet, he retained a title as associate minister of national defence.

Obviously, Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn't want to fire him. He could have done that months ago and spared his government some grief. But he's betting that Mr. Fantino, the former chief of the Ontario Provincial Police and of many other Southern Ontario forces, is still a popular figure with swing voters in the electorally crucial bedroom communities of Southern Ontario.

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So Mr. Harper pushed him aside, rather than out.

Now Mr. Fantino is back at National Defence, where he tripped up as associate minister once before, bungling the government's message about the plan to purchase F-35 fighter jets.

There will be no F-35s this time. Instead, Mr. Fantino's duties involve "supporting" Defence Minister Rob Nicholson in areas including "Arctic sovereignty" and "foreign intelligence" – perhaps to ensure that anything he says or does either takes place in a remote location or is kept secret.

In theory, those could still be important but low-profile duties. The defence portfolio's foreign intelligence work includes the Communications Security Establishment, the agency that listens in on telephone and Internet lines. But, as Mr. Fantino found out before, associate defence ministers don't easily get their hands on the levers of power. Without specific powers or a budget, he'll have a hard time getting anything done.

There are those who think that's a shame. Some of his former aides admire him as a committed minister trying to get things done. He certainly didn't create all of Veterans Affairs' problems.

But that's no longer the point. He's been a weak performer in other portfolios; he mangled the message on F-35s, was never a great communicator in International Co-operation, and at Veterans Affairs, he was seen lecturing a veteran, walking away from a vet's wife in the halls of Parliament, and then providing misleading info on mental-health spending. In democratic country, losing public confidence matters.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair described Mr. Fantino, uncharitably but not inaccurately, as a "serial problem" for the government. "It's a mystery to us that he's still there," Mr. Mulcair said.

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It shouldn't be. Mr. Fantino is something of a symbol of the political success that gave Stephen Harper a majority government in 2011. And he could be useful still, if Mr. Fantino, now 72, decides to run again.

Mr. Fantino turned Vaughan, a heavily Italian-Canadian riding north of Toronto, from Liberal to Conservative in a 2010 by-election. Winning Southern Ontario bedroom communities with ethnic constituencies was the key to the Conservative majority the following year.

And Mr. Fantino is a well-known, popular figure in many of those communities – not with everyone, but with enough potential Conservative swing voters across the 905 area code to matter, where it counts.

There are those who would never vote for him, those who remember controversies when he was chief in London, Toronto, York Region, or the OPP, and can't imagine he's still a political asset. But Rob Ford proved that you can retain a support base through a lot of controversy. Mr. Fantino retains some backing from those who liked him as a straight-talking, safe-streets chief. He's a symbol of the Tory appeal to suburban Ontario.

His missteps at Veterans Affairs? It's surprising how many Conservatives didn't seem to think, for a long time, that it was a big problem. They believed most ordinary folks didn't get caught up in the controversy. If it was just a little media hubbub, it wasn't as important as suburban Ontario votes. But then it started to blow up into something that might taint people's view of the character of Mr. Harper's government, as uncaring. Mr. Fantino had to be moved.

But now that Mr. Fantino is out of the Veterans firing line, Mr. Harper hopes the controversy will fade, and that Mr. Fantino's political value will remain.

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