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A model finance minister

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Jim Flaherty had been Stephen Harper's finance minister for eight years prior to his resignation.

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Jim Flaherty had been Stephen Harper's finance minister for eight years prior to his resignation.

Jim Flaherty's contributions and controversies as finance minister have been well-documented, but much less is known about how he functioned under a prime minister who is famous for his need to control the agenda. In interviews since stepping down on Tuesday, Mr. Flaherty said his colleagues were sometimes very surprised he had the temerity to disagree with Stephen Harper during cabinet meetings, and even in public.

Actually, the right word would have been courage, which he himself said was an essential quality for any finance minister. Indeed, it's a word that belongs in every politician's vocabulary.

It was his commitment to principle, even in the face of political pressure, that marked Mr. Flaherty as the model finance minister.

Three years ago, when the world was struggling to recover economically, Mr. Flaherty called on national leaders to display "greater political resolve" in pursuing long-term solutions, instead of short-term measures for partisan purposes.

At the conclusion of an International Monetary Fund meeting last year, he also said finance ministers should be more independent. "Obviously you're never totally independent because you are part of a government. But there needs to be a certain amount of courage -- and the willingness not to be liked very much."

Mr. Flaherty was comfortable in that role. As finance minister, he took on corporate Canada over income trusts, lowered the GST amid criticism it was bad economics, angered credit card companies with new rules and regulations, tightened the rules for mortgage lenders and postponed the military's plans for new equipment.

Mr. Flaherty was right on some issues, wrong on others, but he never showed much concern about his personal popularity, though he was one of the most likable ministers in the government.

The minister of finance is the most important position in government, but it works best when the office-holder has the courage and independence to champion the country's long-term interests.

Mr. Flaherty leaves behind a robust economy and nearly balanced budget, but it will be up to the new minister, Joe Oliver, to fashion a growth strategy. Hopefully he will have the courage to be unpopular.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2014 A14

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