The Prime Minister said he had accepted the resignation “with great reluctance.” Jim Flaherty is the only finance minister this government has ever known. He commanded a certain respect, even from those of a different political stripe, and he gave respect too – something that cannot be said of enough ministers in the Harper government. Mr. Flaherty’s tenure as finance minister was not perfect; far from it. But his departure is a milestone for the office, and a significant loss for the government.
Mr. Flaherty will be remembered as the guy who slew the deficit; this year’s budget is within margin-of-error distance of balance. But he had another legacy that was bigger and more important: He is the finance minister who ran up the deficit, and who was right to have done so. He presided over the creation of the economic rescue package in the face of the global meltdown of 2008. The irony is that a Conservative finance minister violated some cherished right-wing principles; in the face of an explosion in unemployment, he launched an extensive and successful exercise in Keynesian stimulus through deficit spending. It worked. He devoted the rest of his term bringing the deficit down as the economy recovered. The speed of that move can be debated; the general direction cannot.
Mr. Flaherty is, however, also the finance minister who presided over the cutting of the GST from 7 per cent to 5 – a politically popular choice that was bad public policy. He could have cut tax rates across the board but, instead of following conservative principles and making the tax code simpler and cleaner, he introduced targeted tax breaks designed to woo various micro-constituencies.
Would he have done otherwise, if given the choice? Maybe. His last major act, the day after his last budget, was to call into question the idea of income splitting – the promised centrepiece of next year’s budget. The measure would offer a tax cut to a small minority of mostly wealthy Canadians, and Mr. Flaherty’s criticism was bang on. In diplomatic but clear language, he questioned a promise at the heart of his government’s platform, calling it neither good policy nor good politics.
Many in the party were angry at him. They should have been thanking him for trying to save them from their own worst impulses. In the fullness of time, maybe they will.