Jim Flaherty achieved a rare mix of politics and principle

He fought, happily and with conviction

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Seen here in a 2006 file photo, the then-candidate for the riding of Whitby-Oshawa Jim Flaherty tapes Canadian Flags to chairs at the Royal Canadian Legion in Whitby where he would host his constituents for an election night party. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star/Getty)

Seen here in a 2006 file photo, the then-candidate for the riding of Whitby-Oshawa Jim Flaherty tapes Canadian flags to chairs at the Royal Canadian Legion in Whitby where he would host his constituents for an election night party. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star/Getty)

William Wordsworth’s poem “Character of the Happy Warrior” describes a combatant “whose high endeavours are an inward light, that makes the path before him always light.” This image of the happy warrior—who draws not just comfort, but delight from his cause—was invoked often following NDP leader Jack Layton’s death in 2011. It seems equally appropriate to describe Jim Flaherty, whose unexpected death today came less than a month after he resigned as federal Finance Minister.

Like Layton, who died shortly after an unprecedented electoral success, Flaherty died too soon after a landmark success. As Finance Minister, Flaherty steered the Canadian economy through a global recession with determination. He left when a return to a balanced budget seemed certain. But what is equally striking is how much joy he took in his job. In an era of petty politics and cabinet ministers who put their principles second to their allegiances, Flaherty drew strength—even joy—from doing what he felt was right.

Flaherty enjoyed a remarkable career of public service, spending a decade in the Ontario legislature before moving to federal politics in 2006. He was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first—and, until one month ago, only—finance minister. He oversaw the $40-billion fiscal stimulus package that helped the Canadian economy weather the financial crisis, then guided the federal budget back toward balance. While that policy was a matter of necessity as much as principle, there were other places where Flaherty clearly let his convictions guide him: there was his elimination of income trusts; his ongoing fight to create a national securities regulator; and his efforts to rein in the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. In the final days of his tenure as Finance Minister, there was also his open questioning of whether income splitting—promised by the government in the last election—was sound fiscal policy. He never let principle stand in the way of reason, but was also tenacious in pursuit of his firmly held beliefs.

But what is striking was how much Flaherty enjoyed himself. He was no grim-faced zealot—witness Paul Wells’s account of his offstage performance at a Public Policy Forum dinner. Going door-to-door during election campaigns can be gruelling, yet the veteran politician reportedly took delight in task. Years after he left provincial politics behind, he’d offer acerbic assessments of Ontario’s governing Liberals—partly, it seemed, for the fun of it (The fact his wife, Christine Elliot, took his provincial seat likely contributed to his interest).

There can be comfort in gleaning lessons from the lives of the mourned. Layton and Flaherty were diametrically opposed in the politics, but their lives hold a similar moral. Jim Flaherty found a way not to be dragged down by principles, but to be buoyed by them. He fought happily and with conviction. Canada would be well-served if all our politicians honoured him by following that example.

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