Politics

Why Jim Flaherty can afford to act casual

The finance minister drops the artifice — and a budget date

Adrian Wyld/CP

Jim Flaherty’s manner of speaking to journalists has evolved dramatically over the years. Early on in the life of the Harper government, the finance minister was reliably upbeat and pugnacious. When the Great Recession hit, he turned appropriately grave. Since he’s been battling a skin disease, which he disclosed publicly about a year ago, he has often appeared drained of energy.

Today, as he talked to reporters—a few hours before announcing in the House of Commons that he’ll deliver his 2014 budget on Feb. 11—Flaherty adopted a sort of blasé minimalism. His answers were brief, broad, and equivocal. (Incidentally, he evidently wasn’t keeping it short because he’s feeling unwell: On his health, he declared that it isn’t affecting his work.)

For instance, asked if he expects the Conservatives will take advantage of his projected balanced budget in 2015 by doing some opportunistic spending before that fall’s scheduled election, he said, “I’m not going to spend a lot of money,” but then added matter-of-factly, “I’m not the only person who makes these decisions.”

In the same vein, at another point, he said, “I’m not a big spender,” and indicated that his junior ministers, who were standing behind him, aren’t “big spenders, either.” Then he noted with a wry smile, “But there are some in our caucus, perhaps, who would spend more than we would.”

Interpret as you will. I guess Flaherty means to convey that he personally isn’t inclined to spend much, but, hey, who knows what the rest of the cabinet and Tory caucus might insist upon? This isn’t surprising as a reflection of political reality, of course. But it is unusual to hear a finance minister talking about such internal tensions.

At another point in the same news conference, he was asked, more narrowly, if the federal government might invest more in its proposed Canada Job Grant, since it’s becoming increasingly obvious that provinces and employers won’t be contributing as much to the proposed training program as Flaherty had hoped when he announced it in last year’s budget.

At first, he deferred to “the minister responsible” for the job grants scheme—that would be Employment Minister Jason Kenney—but then allowed, “There will be room for more money in the government of Canada in the next several years because we’ve been careful.” I don’t think he intended to signal that the Canada Job Grant is going to get an injection of more cash for sure, but rather that this was among the possibilities after the budget is again in the black.

For him to respond that way strikes me as oddly casual. I say oddly, because, almost always in the past, federal finance ministers I’ve listened to have tried to be precise and authoritative, or, if they can’t manage that, to dodge questions entirely. Flaherty has grown willing to talk less formally—there’s “room to maneuver” on spending—and to shruggingly acknowledge his limits—“I’m not the only person who makes these decisions.”

On the Canada Job Grant, he even freely admits the thing isn’t a done deal. Amazing—this was arguably the biggest new initiative in the 2013 budget.  “Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’ll take time. The concept is a good concept. We’ll just have to keep working on it,” he said when asked about provincial reluctance to sign on to the program. “I’m hopeful that it will work out.”

It’s helpful to know that Flaherty retains some hope on that score. Just as it’s useful context to learn that, even if he’s inclined not to indulge in a pre-election spending spree, others in the government feel differently.

I suppose Flaherty’s long tenure in the top cabinet job has earned him the right to drop some of the artifice that usually goes with positions like his. And today’s off-hand tone was by no means new from him. In the recent past, he’s remarked on how he remains open to expanding the CPP, even as the government took a hard line against the idea as a “job-killing payroll tax,” and has casually alluded to his preference for abolishing the Senate, even while the government is still for reforming it.

If he keeps this up, it will be worth listening very closely to Flaherty when he tables his Feb. 11 budget and in the days to follow. The script doesn’t seem to mean all that much to him these days.