The sudden death of Jim Flaherty from an apparent heart attack, mere weeks after he stepped down from the demanding post of federal finance minister, has hit with a shock for many. It is clear from the emotional and heartfelt expressions of sadness and praise that Flaherty was well liked and respected by his colleagues in politics. Like others who have done so, we too extend our condolences to his family for their loss.
Emotions notwithstanding, a more even-handed review of his record as finance minister both provincially and federally shows a legacy that has left Canada some distance from the former caring society that did its best to accommodate the vast majority of its members.
As the Toronto Star’s Tom Walkom noted upon news of Flaherty’s death, the dismantling of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), one cut at a time, the steady erosion of retirement and employment security for the majority of Canadians, and the undermining of the public health-care system were all carried out under Flaherty’s watch. In years to come, we will feel the effect of the $5 billion in planned cuts to Medicare transfer payments that Flaherty handed to the provinces in 2011 in a unilateral move that astounded many provincial premiers.
We agree with Walkom’s comments that, “There is no evidence … to suggest that his motives were anything but public-spirited. But he was also an integral part of a government determined to smash or cripple much of what makes Canada a livable country. His death is a reminder that good people can do bad things for the best of motives.”
It was under Flaherty’s watch, a demanding stretch of more than eight years that had to have taken its toll on him physically, that measures were packaged into massive omnibus bills which allowed little time for proper scrutiny by the Parliamentary Opposition or the public.
While all of this was assembled by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his close circle of ideologues, this particular Conservative economic model was ably aided by Flaherty who was very much a part of the movement to swing to the hard right that began in the Ontario government in the mid-1990s when Conservative Mike Harris became premier.
Flaherty had a strong hand in the devastating Common Sense Revolution that cut through the fabric of this province’s social support system. That included cutting welfare rates by 21 per cent and freezing the province’s minimum wage. During that period he served as minister of labour, attorney general, finance minister and deputy premier.
As the federal Conservatives sought to win public opinion, the $7 billion surplus left behind by the previous Liberal government was soon depleted, creating a deficit even before the economic crisis of 2008-2009 hit.
It was only at the end of his career, as he was leaving politics, that we heard another side to Flaherty’s understanding of how to accommodate Canadians while managing the books. He had commented, for example, that he had learned the lesson that sometimes a politician has to surrender ideology for pragmatism.
The $47 billion that went into stimulating our economy under his watch helped to save Canada from being dragged under to the extent that the United States and other G-8 economies were affected.
Flaherty is also being lauded for introducing tax-free savings, and attempting to cool the housing market by lowering the amortization period from 30 to 25 years as well as lowering to 80 per cent (from 85 per cent) the maximum amount of equity homeowners can take out for refinancing.
Being accorded a state funeral cannot be argued, as some have done. It is an indication of how well Flaherty was respected by Canadian politicians, international economists and the financial elite. Given the toll it took on his health, regardless of whether or not we agreed with his politics, it is clear that he was committed to serving in the interest of the country.