Tag Archives: finance minister jim flaherty

No need to gild the finance minister’s good record



They came not to bury Caesar, but to praise him. Boy, did they ever. 

Former federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s passing on Thursday – at 64, reportedly from a heart attack – dominated the front page of the Globe and Mail’s Friday edition. In fact, “dominated” might not be the right word; utterly blanketed would be a more accurate description. 

Apart from an ad announcing Toyota’s “red tag” days, nothing else appeared Page-One-worthy for “Canada’s National Newspaper”. 

Our “guiding force” was gone; the man who “shaped the Conservative Party, the nation and the world’s response to the Great Recession” was no more, tragically cut down in the late-middle-age of his life. It took eight reporters and editorialists to say so.

Political Affairs Correspondent John Ibbitson’s walk down memory lane was almost affecting: “In politics, you do what you gotta do. . .At the end he (Flaherty) was pretty happy with his record. . .But then, he was a pretty happy guy. Back when we were  both at Queen’s Park, he’d drop by the press lounge every now and then late on a Friday afternoon to mooch a beer and find out what the boys and girls were saying. He always greeted you with that impish grin, trolling for gossip, though he seldom offered up any of his own.”

At the back of the paper’s front section, the lead editorial continued the eulogy: “Goodbye to the little giant. . .Mr. Flaherty was a giant in the Harper cabinet, and not just because he ran the department whose control of the purse strings makes it, to some extent, the ministry of everything. He was one of the few Harper ministers who acted with considerable independent authority.”

Indeed, it’s difficult, even impossible, to recall another Canadian public official of Flaherty’s metier accorded such a fulsome tribute as this. Pierre Trudeau, Tommy Douglas, Jack Layton, perhaps; still, they were all leaders of national parties and political movements. They weren’t finance ministers.

But, of course, therein lies the answer. 

One of the great foundational assumptions of the post-recession era – especially by the Ontario-centric national press gallery – is that Mr. Flaherty’s foresight and steady hand prevented the country’s Toronto-based financial institutions from circling the drain along with all the others in the wild, wild west during the financial collapse of ’08. For many media mavens, that “fact”, alone, makes the former finance minister’s track record a far more compelling story to tell than even the prime minister’s.   

Another key supposition of the modern age is that Mr. Flaherty’s fiscal stimulus program (Economic Action Plan) – all tallied, about $150 billion – was singularly responsible for preventing the economy from crashing and burning, given the private lending community’s terror of bad debt during the recession. Again, this “fact” has served the frequent press portrayals of the “little giant’s” rock-star status both at home and abroad.

There’s truth in both claims: Mr. Flaherty was a competent steward of the economy in tough times; had he been an inflexible ideologue with a fetish for balancing the nation’s accounts in a zero-growth environment, the road to recovery would have been much rockier than it was. 

But the real secret behind Canada’s relatively robust financial performance during the era of diminishing expectations – at least compared with those of the United Sates, and much of continental Europe – was, and is, its responsible and well-regulated banking system and monetary traditions. 

Mr. Flaherty deserves plaudits for not messing with these (the way former U.S. President Bill Clinton disastrously did with his nation’s laws when he repealed the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that had, for 66 years, successfully separated commercial from investment banking). But he doesn’t deserve credit for engineering a recovery with a system he merely inherited. 

Neither does he warrant much praise for using the Economic Action Plan creatively and to truly productive effect by making strategic investments in crucial infrastructure, higher education and training, advanced technology commercialization, and work-based poverty reduction programs. To have done so would have invited internecine warfare in his own party. 

Mr. Flaherty should be remembered in public circles as a bright, decent, effective, and tough cabinet minister. He was also that rarest of birds in the Harper government: he could both tell and take a joke. 

But he was not Caesar, and he never sought that company. 

Perhaps, that’s one reason he left Parliament a month ago: Too many little emperors running about, taking credit where credit is, most certainly, not due.


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The shuffling of deck chairs


Prime Minister Stephen Harper has installed eight new smiles, and plenty of old ones, to greet him at this year’s Conservative Party’s national policy convention, which falls, thanks to the gods of irony, on Halloween.

But Canadians need not wait for the pagan holiday to appreciate the dimension of change the new federal cabinet heralds. The tricks and the treats have been in the works for months; certainly, ever since public opinion polls started granting the youthful, would-be usurper, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, a commanding lead over dear, old Father Harper.

Following the swearing in on Monday, the PM described his shuffle thusly: “I think this is a good mixture of some young and promising talent we have in our caucus and some experienced hands. . .This fall, the government will move ahead with a renewed policy agenda set forward in a speech from the throne. . .And our new agenda will have new faces to bring it forward. The team Canadians elected. . .is deep and it is talented.”

Indeed, it is. It’s also huge – 39 cabinet ministers, in all, will sally forth across the land, preaching the virtues of small government to increasingly skeptical audiences who have, by now, grown accustomed to political spin masquerading as plain speech.

Still, the appointees, themselves, are auspicious picks. Comprising the cohort of newbies are: Chris Alexander, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration; Michelle Rempel,  Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification; Shelly Glover, Heritage Minister; Candice Bergen, Minister of State for Social Development; Kellie Leitch, Minister of Labour, Greg Rickford, Minister of State for Science and Technology; Kevin Sorenson, Minister of State for Finance; and Pierre Poilievre, Minister of Democratic Reform

Standing sturdily, right where they were, are Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, International Trade Minister Ed Fast and Treasury Board President Tony Clement. Meanwhile, some old standbys are moving on, including Peter MacKay, former Defence Minister, who assumes the Justice portfolio.

The question, of course, is what, if anything, do these personnel changes say about the promised “renewed policy agenda.” Many of the federal government’s signature plans and priorities have been stuck in neutral for more than a year.

Trade talks with the Europeans are going nowhere. Relations with Washington remain cordial, but cool. Keystone is but a wish to be contemplated. The new fighter jet project is all but grounded. And, despite Mr. Flaherty’s and his central bank’s best efforts, the Canadian economy, has not rebounded in convincing fashion from the downturns of the past decade.

These items crowd the list of the old agenda, and they are not going away. They are, in fact, the baggage Mr. Harper and his new cabinet must haul during the scant years before the next general election. Worse, the signs that Canadians are increasingly weary of having to watch their elected members carry this burden from one committee room to another, from one public announcement to another, are plentiful.

“A new poll shows the federal Liberals continue to pound the Conservatives, with Canadians saying for the first time leader Justin Trudeau would make a better prime minister then Stephen Harper,” The Montreal Gazette reported in June. “According to a new Léger Marketing poll, 27 per cent of Canadians now think Trudeau would be a better prime minister than Harper, who has a score of 23 per cent. New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair is seen as the best prime minister by 14 per cent. It’s the first time Léger has reached such a polling conclusion since Trudeau took over the party April 14, said Léger vice-president Christian Bourque. ‘It’s the Trudeau phenomenon,’ said Bourque. ‘In our polling it’s the first time that he’s. . .ahead of Stephen Harper.’”

If the prime minister hopes to improve his party’s standing among Canadians, he would be wise to grant both old and new faces around the cabinet table greater authority to offer fresh, even independent, perspectives on the issues that, for the moment, fall within their purview only titularly.

That would be the neatest trick, and a welcome treat, at this year’s Halloween policy gala.

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