THE CURRENCY of the word outpouring was notable this week: over at the National Post, Michael Den Tandt has not only described the phenomenon, but indulged it himself. His essay “Former finance minister Jim Flaherty’s death leaves a void in the Conservative party” issues high praise, pressing Kipling and Aristotle into the service of a lush panegyric. Again, nothing unusual here – it’s what everyone is doing these days, not only at the National Post, but elsewhere.
Credit this to ordinary Canadian decency and to the universal and mostly unspoken rule to speak only good of the dead. Yet death is properly a private and personal matter, a fact increasingly lost on the thousands who take instantly to Twitter at every departure of the renowned. I too was saddened by the news of a sudden passing, because it meant – as a death always does – a family’s loss of a father, a partner and a friend. Not my loss, but theirs. The dignified and respectful resolve is not to make a display of one’s feelings, and it’s worth noting that the more intimate someone has been with the deceased, the less tempted to a public performance. Only a stranger pours it out in that ostentatious way.
We’ve been down this path so many times now, the most recent instance being Jack Layton and the most notorious being Diana Spencer. (Lady Di, if faux-familiarity and sentimentality are your thing.) As with everything human, grief has its variations. The obituaries of Mr. Flaherty have been thoughtful, generous and kind – but also straining for a hero in our time, much in the way the praise of Mr. Layton had been. The media consensus is that the Minister of Finance was a man of extraordinary compassion and humour and kindness, a non-ideological moderate, a servant of the people, and a rescuer of Canada from financial ruin.
Here I must trespass on the impolite, and I’ll begin by restoring to the record the excised bits in which Jim Flaherty was a soldier of Mike Harris’s “Common Sense Revolution.” The idea that he was a non-ideological moderate would have been laughed out of the room, even by the man himself. Moderate was an insult he applied to his leadership rival, that pink and pale McGuinty imitation Ernie Eves. As Ontario’s Attorney General and Finance Minister, Flaherty was one of Harris’s most consistent and reliable true believers, mocked (like Harris himself) for applying his tough-on-crime universal restorative elixir to homelessness and poverty.
After years of downloading and service cuts and austerity, a good portion of it served up by Flaherty himself, the Progressive Conservatives were turfed from power. The only consolation of the Harris years was the notion that, after all, there’s no gain without pain – but even this turned out to have been a con. The finances of Ontario, we soon learned, were despite the years of frugality a mess. Much of what had been done had to be undone, and to this day I don’t see what the point of those years had been, other than to discredit and disfigure the very notion of government. It’s telling that the Ontario PCs remain an opposition party to this day, having been unable to convince the voters they are preferable to the near-universally and properly despised Dalton McGuinty and company.
As a public servant, Jim Flaherty was committed and hard-working and by all accounts a decent and congenial colleague. Some of his more controversial ideas – his social conservatism and his desire to encourage and expand private and denominational schooling – were checked by his bosses and by public opinion, while his more popular ideas (the fiscal stimulus comes to mind) were imposed upon him against his will. The federal initiatives for which he deserves principal credit – the Registered Disability Savings Plan and the Tax-Free Savings Account – are good and helpful, as is his balancing of Canada’s budget.
You will also recall that, as Attorney General, Flaherty’s portfolio included responsibility for the province’s Aboriginal affairs. Here his record is of a sharp contrast with Mr. Harris’s. In a September 17, 2000 Toronto Sun article, Christina Blizzard reported a conversation between Ontario’s Attorney General and Nunavut’s Justice Minister, Jack Anarack. Minister Flaherty was clearly affected by Anarack’s personal recollections of the Indian residential school, and he became one of the earliest politicians to criticize, in public, the federal government’s court battles with former students, calling for a more humane alternative. Surely it’s the forgotten details like this that ought to go into the record.
I make no argument with those who say Jim Flaherty was among Canada’s best federal Ministers of Finance, or even the best. Although I was an active opponent of the Harris government, in which he was a central figure, I took no pleasure at all in the sad news of his death. On the question of his private and personal life, I defer to those who are quick with praise. His public record as a career politician, on the other hand, was of a more controversial character.