Political life can take its toll, as Jim Flaherty’s tragic death underscores. All the meetings, travel, stress, files, speeches and other demands – to say nothing of being in the public limelight as a finance minister – chip away at a person’s health, unless he or she is very careful indeed.
To those who saw Mr. Flaherty up close in recent months, he looked thoroughly worn out. He had been suffering from a skin disease that required heavy doses of medication. It appears to have been a heart attack that killed him, but the ailment almost certainly put stress on his body and stamina.
His face looked puffy and tired. When he announced his resignation last month, friends and family must have been heartened that he could finally rest, put the severe pressures of being a cabinet minister behind him and take his time choosing what to do with the rest of his working life.
It all seemed so sensible – after all those years in public life, a well-earned period of relative repose, time with his wife and three children, then something interesting, presumably in finance or law. But now he has been cut down, leaving a grieving family, many friends and a future blunted.
Canadians love to rattle on about their politicians, a crowd of pocket-liners, loafers and second-raters. There are some of those, to be sure, but there are also people who pour themselves into the work and discover that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to attend to all the demands of the job. If a minister isn’t careful, the demands can run them ragged.
Mr. Flaherty is not the first, and he will not be the last, for whom the work load discernibly and adversely affected his health. It takes discipline to eat sensibly, drink moderately and get a lot of exercise while in high office.
Prime ministers Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney were “Exhibit A” examples of staying in shape. Mr. Mulroney stopped drinking before becoming prime minister and hasn’t had a drop of liquor since. Stephen Harper, by contrast, has put on weight since becoming prime minister, the gain shielded from public view to some extent by careful tailoring.
These days, the holders of very high office, such as finance ministers, have more international travel demands upon them than their predecessors several or more decades ago. There is now a more intensive network of international financial and economic institutions than before, which means someone like Mr. Flaherty is overseas and back all the time. As anyone who regularly flies long distances knows, these trips are tiring. Even when you return home, there’s jet lag to sleep off – except that there is a large pile of work waiting for a finance minister the moment he or she steps off the plane.
And at home, there are obligations to travel the country explaining government policies, trips to support other MPs and visits to the home constituency, which in Mr. Flaherty’s case meant arriving in Toronto and then fighting the nightmarish traffic out to Whitby-Oshawa.
There’s always another colleague who wants the minister’s ear, someone from the financial and business community pitching something, cabinet meetings to attend, briefings on all sorts of issues and, especially with this government, constant micro-management (which Mr. Flaherty was often able to deflect) from the Prime Minister’s Office.
These pressures are far from conducive to a balanced life. But just when it seemed Mr. Flaherty had arranged things so that he could discover some semblance of that balance, he got what the Irish call the “tap on the shoulder” – the blow that killed him.