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Flaherty: tried, true foot soldier

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CALGARY -- Jim Flaherty was the best Ontario finance minister the country ever had.

As former finance minister for that province, Flaherty went on to guide the national ship as if the fortunes of Ontario would determine the fortunes of the country overall. He wasn't entirely wrong about that, although one wonders whether his centrist focus caused him to underestimate the economic opportunities other regions of the country presented.

A product of the Ontario Progressive Conservative machine, Flaherty rode to power at the provincial level in 1995 as part of the Mike Harris-led "common-sense revolution." He enjoyed stints as provincial minister of Labour, Solicitor General and Correctional Services before settling into the Finance portfolio in 2001.

When he jumped to the federal Conservatives in 2006, he brought with him the Ontario brand of conservatism that helped Stephen Harper's party solidify support in the all-important voter heartland. From suburban Toronto, he captured the small-c conservative spirit of the so-called 905 belt of voters, many of whom today maintain stubborn loyalty to disgraced Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

In the West, Flaherty was accepted as a fiscal conservative, but was never really considered one of us. In particular, he is remembered for his controversial decision in October 2006 to change the rules of taxation around Canadian income trusts as a way of stifling "a growing trend to corporate tax avoidance." He said his intention was to "level the playing field" by taking away the tax advantage income trusts previously held over companies operating as corporations.

It may not have hurt investors on the scale of the Pierre Trudeau's National Energy Program of the 1980s, but it made him no friends in certain investment circles. As John McCallum, then-Liberal finance critic, said at the time, "... having lured hundreds of thousands of ordinary Canadians into income trusts by promising not to raises taxes, you then cut them off at the knees."

Flaherty, Canada's third-longest-serving finance minister, deserves praise for two interconnected accomplishments. The first is helping the country weather the economic storm that started with the worldwide downturn of 2008 -- the world's greatest financial crisis in 70 years. Ironically, former Liberal finance minister Paul Martin is credited with setting the stage for Flaherty by keeping the country in surplus. This allowed Flaherty to introduce tax cuts that the country otherwise could not have afforded.

It also left Flaherty with enough cash to buy up billions of dollars of government-backed mortgages, keeping Canada from enduring the housing sector crash that brought the United States to its knees. His ensuing stimulus spending kept Canada out of the deep economic trough that affected other G7 nations.

All this put the country on track for a balanced federal budget in 2015, although many economists argue this year's budget was effectively there.

In recent months, Flaherty has struggled with a skin ailment called bullous pemphigoid, that forced him to take steroid-based medications. It's unlikely a coincidence that he seemed to be losing heart for playing the game. He showed little concern for his boss when he publicly questioned whether the federal government should go ahead with its promised income-splitting plan for couples once the federal budget was balanced -- a public rumination done apparently without the knowledge or consent of the prime minister.

He also made no effort to conceal his personal affection for Ford, an admitted user of illegal drugs. Indeed, quite the opposite: Flaherty choked up for reporters last November as he talked about Ford's troubles.

His affection for Ford also drove him to cross swords with a close ally of Harper. When Immigration Minister Jason Kenney publicly criticized Ford in the House, Flaherty told Kenney to "shut the f___ up," clearly not a career enhancing move.

Flaherty now turns to making some real money in the private sector (after a mandated "cooling off" period) with a largely positive legacy from his time in government. While he may not have won the hearts of Canadians -- one wonders if Harper even liked him -- he proved himself to be a loyal Conservative soldier who helped western Reformers and Ontario's Harris disciples unite in common cause.

For that alone Harper owes his former finance minister a debt of gratitude.


Doug Firby is editor-in-chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2014 A15

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