‘Each of us should contemplate Jim Flaherty’s example’

Paul Wells remembers the formidable former finance minister

Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty speaks to the press as he tries on new shoes as he shops in Ottawa on March 28, 2012. (Rogerio Barbosa/AFP/Getty)

Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty speaks to the press as he tries on new shoes as he shops in Ottawa on March 28, 2012. (Rogerio Barbosa/AFP/Getty)

It will often be said over the next few days that they don’t make politicians like Jim Flaherty any more, but come on: when did they ever?

In 2002 Mike Harris stepped down as leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party and opened his succession to an array of singularly bloodless potential successors: Ernie Eves, Elizabeth Witmer, Chris Stockwell. Tony Clement for fun. And Jim Flaherty, a smirky leprechaun like an Irish cop from central casting. He wanted to jail the homeless. He sent a Queen’s freshman dressed as a waffle to bedevil Eves on the campaign trail. He read his campaign speeches from Teleprompters, exotic behaviour in those simple times. Covering him, I thought Christmas for pundits must have come early.

It was so easy to see why Mike Harris had promoted him so aggressively in the departing premier’s last months in office. Winners can spot winners. “I believe him to be the most formidable new political talent to rise in Canadian public life in the last decade or so,” I wrote of Flaherty in the National Post on the morning of the leadership vote, “and I believe his party is about to make a mistake it will pay for with all its toys.”

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“I’ve never understood,” a Liberal who worked for Dalton McGuinty told me later, “How it is that a Queen’s Park gallery full of reporters could have thought Eves was the second coming. And then you wandered in from Ottawa and saw what we saw. Jim Flaherty terrified us.”

He won 38 per cent of second-ballot votes that year, and 46 per cent in 2004, after Eves lost and it was John Tory’s turn to be Ontario Conservatism’s great moderate hope. By 2006 he had given up on Ontario politics and joined Stephen Harper’s federal Conservative insurgency.

He would never be entirely comfortable being somebody’s lieutenant, even somebody as forceful and successful as Harper. Flaherty was uncomfortable taking orders. During the short period after he stopped being a factor in Toronto and before he became a big deal in Ottawa, I sat at the table next to his at the back of the annual Public Policy Forum dinner in Toronto. The PPF dinner is one of the Canadian elite’s obligatory events, a long testimonial gathering at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in which the worthiest of public-service worthies are flattered in batches of four—Mel Cappe! Phil Fontaine! Bob Rae! Chaviva Hosek! On this particular occasion, however, the proceedings were leavened, for anyone sitting within 40 feet of Jim Flaherty, by his wicked, sotto voce and deeply funny heckling of every single Great Canadian who popped his or her head above the podium.

He was on better behaviour when he got to Ottawa, but really not much. He simply had no interest in obeying others’ ideas of proper decorum. In a capital full of trimmers and dissemblers, the little vortex of anarchy around the Finance Minister remained consistently satisfying. He kept an eye on Ontario politics, where his wife Christine Elliott remains active, and when an occasion arose to decry the McGuinty Liberals’ performance he rarely let it pass. He viewed every second question from reporters as a chance to crack wise, and he made a great show of taking his time while he did it.

He was brilliant at telegraphing disagreement with Harper, without letting it degenerate into open revolt. When he had been finance minister for a year I interviewed him in the penthouse Toronto Finance District office reserved for Ontario ministers when they’re not in Ottawa. The government was preparing to “solve the fiscal imbalance” by transferring billions to the provinces. It was Flaherty’s job to make sure the books balanced after that bit of Kabuki theatre was done, and he made it clear to me that he didn’t want to give away the store. This government was “the first federal government in Canadian history to acknowledge” the existence of a fiscal imbalance, he said. He paused a beat. Then: “There’s a good deal of debate about how large it is, you know.” Then he roared with laughter at that subtle bit of editorializing.

But no minister gets the reputation Flaherty enjoyed merely by being an expert heckler and telegrapher of distance from the boss. When Harper wrote an ambush on political party financing into the 2008 fall economic update, it was Flaherty who stoically took the criticism for the uproar that followed, uproar he had done nothing to provoke. And after Harper survived the coalition crisis his own tactical blunder had provoked, it fell to Flaherty to deliver the economic stimulus the moment required. Later even auditor-general Sheila Fraser complimented the government on the care with which it disbursed billions of dollars in quick spending. Flaherty’s stock in international finance circles rose commensurately. He became the surest guarantor of the Harper government’s key electoral asset, its relative credibility as a steward of the economy.

We spend endless hours in Ottawa debating the strange phenomenon of MPs sinking ever further into anonymity, pusillanimity and risk aversion. Optimistic colleagues while away the hours imagining some structural reform that would transform MPs into men and women of ideas and innovations. And there may be room for such reforms, but in the end, it all comes down to the same question each of us faces in our lives: Are you going to live in fear, or are you going to live? Jim Flaherty was more alive than the next half-dozen politicians and assorted Hill denizens put together. That’s why his death leaves such a shocking emptiness behind. Each of us should contemplate his example.

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‘Each of us should contemplate Jim Flaherty’s example’

  1. Contemplate his example? Record debt and endless deficits? Contemplate his wretched omnibus budget bills? Okay. I’ve contemplated his example. And it was bad bad bad. RIP the man but not so the Minister of Financial Disaster.

    • I bet Jim Flaherty was a good guy, but not a good finance minister. Fact is Canada is in a economic box that is in the next 3 years is either going to implode or blow up into hyper-stagflation. In any case, commoner middle class is about to get decimated. Carney knew when to leave Canada, before the recent devaluation save him millions.

      Record debt, Ottawa house of corruption cards is failing. Devaluing money for excessive government waste, excess and corruption of bailouts and sheer economic stupidity. Lets look at BIG picture. Canada has a $1.8 trillion economy and fed+provincial tax/spending of $630 billion. 35% tax rate is obscenely high and why we get paid less and taxed more. Its statism greed. Ottawa has greatly exceeded taxation elasticity when 35 cents of every dollar on average is going to government consumption and waste. And an economically uneducated public wonder why young people, and laid off 50s don’t have jobs.

      Its because common people with devalued money, less after tax income, tax inflated pricing, have less money to spend on job creating exchange of goods and services. As a nation, incomes, pensions, savings, all just got devalued. We are a negative value depreciating economy of debt. But we have governemtn living well beyond its means spending more on uncommon good than common good. We love the illusions of statism government bloat and debt. Like a heroin addict, we are addicted to debt, and its going to economically kill Canadian economics.

      No one savvy invest in depreciating money, in a depreciating economy of debt ponzi fraud.

      In 20 years, Bernanke, Carney, Flaherty will not be treated with todays false pravda. Its clear western governments and banks corrupt economics is failing.

      You should see how my non-USA, non-CAD investments are doing in terms of CAD. Only regrets is not converting my RRSP to foreign currency, but then banks love locked in money as they can tax it with devalued money.

  2. You’d say the same about your good buddy Poilievre.

  3. So the cons have been living off the taxpayers credit card the past 8 years and everyone thinks this guy(JF) was a financial genius. JF was a rude man and one of the most partisan in the whole party, but it seems when your dead, your all of a sudden the best thing in the world since sliced bread. This guy had an ego the size of Steve Harpers. Its a sad day for Canadian news outlets when the journos and reporters are singing from the same book about a guy who was as nasty as anyone in the HOC. That’s the problem with all these authors, there just as partisan as the politicians.

  4. Let’s be fair. Flaherty was an exception to the rule amount Cons/Reform members.
    He was funny, impish, and generous in human terms. But still a hard liner in political terms.
    His famous Western speech I’m sure was sincere, but his party has so coarsened politics with attack politics and personal destruction of talented people such as Ignatieff and Dion, that a gifted young person would be crazy to enter it.
    And the Conservative Party now gets near thugs in the PMO. Who else would go?
    Stephen Harper is only thinking one thing today: how can I make the most of this electorally?
    But I think Flaherty deserves the praise. He stood alone. And showed such courage in these final years.

    • Ignatieff and Dion couldn’t come up with a G12 graduates knowledge of economics even when combined.

      Canadian politics is about who does the least damage, and academics, even Harvard ones like Ignatieff actually have a pretty bad track record in economics. It was even a Harvard graduate Stern who started NorTel’s decline, then Enron too, as is GM, GMAC and Chrysler bankruptcies.

      Carny was no hero either, getting our when he did saved him from the rapid depreciation of CAD money. Now he has it on the London exchange and around the world in currencies not devaluing and far better returns. If rich people, well off people in Canada did the math, its no longer economical to live in Canada unless you have a high yield racket going like Shaw, Rogers, Loblaws, Patterson, Stonach’s, Irvings….,

  5. Oh puleeeze.

  6. Flaherty may well have been a skilled politician, but his legacy is one of misery and hardship for the poor. He was Robin Hood in reverse. Everything he did was intended to take money from the poor, and give it to the rich.

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