Life

Jim Flaherty Departs the Stage

Former finance minister was a damn good political showman, and a friend to many.

By Crawford Kilian 10 Apr 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

My grandfather, an actor for over 70 years, once observed that "the show must not go on" after a serious accident or death. The show, after all, is just theatre; entertainment should never dare to supersede reality.

So it was appropriate that Parliament paused on Thursday when it received the news of the sudden death of Jim Flaherty. Opposition members crossed the floor to console their Conservative adversaries. NDP leader Tom Mulcair reportedly choked up when he spoke about Flaherty to the media, and the former finance minister had a very modern send-off from Twitter, where he was instantly trending.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum: Speak nothing but good of the dead, the Romans advised. The Greeks were more realistic and less sentimental: "Call no man happy until he is dead," they said -- not because they thought the afterlife wonderful but because they knew how fragile and transient life and good fortune can be.

I think we can safely call Jim Flaherty happy even by the Greeks' high standards. He carried out a notably effective political career, both provincially in Mike Harris's Ontario government and federally under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Stricken with a rare and difficult skin disease, he bore it with stoic dignity -- all the more so because he was willing to endure the inspection of the TV cameras that revealed the effect of medication and his own obvious discomfort.

A happy man

He could also be called happy because he was able to carry out an economic program he believed in. It was not one that every Canadian supported, but he made the Harper pluralities go a long way. Flaherty's economic views were those of what Paul Krugman calls Very Serious People: those who detest both government spending and the taxes it requires, who believe that markets should be free-ranging and able to gobble up whatever they encountered.

By cutting the Harmonized Sales Tax at the outset of the Harper years, Flaherty hamstrung many useful government programs. Yet he was willing, in the crash of 2008-09, to junk his orthodoxy and run the government deep into debt. He had looked for a moment into the abyss, the abyss looked back at him, and he had the intelligence and courage to turn aside.

Whatever progressives may think about Flaherty and his allies, he made many good friends and was a good friend to them -- not merely a patron and dispenser of political favours. He might maintain a discreet silence about many Conservatives who got into trouble, and about government policies he disapproved of, but his distress about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's problems with booze and drugs was public and unashamed. E. M. Forster once said, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." Flaherty would have understood.

It is too soon to gauge Flaherty's legacy as a politician, except to say that future finance ministers and their governments will have to deal with his policies -- whether to extend them, pause them, or roll them back. But we can safely say that as a political showman he was damn good, better than most of his colleagues, including the leading man. He enjoyed putting on a show for the public and his parliamentary fellow-thespians.

The shock of Flaherty's passing brought down the curtain on the alarums and excursions of Thursday's Question Period, and the rest of the cast was left to ad lib their lines, without the benefit of talking points. Life backstage in Ottawa will be subdued for a few days. But next week the curtain will go up again, and the cast will strut and fret once more upon the stage.  [Tyee]

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