It was only three weeks ago that we were writing Jim Flaherty’s political obituary, as he left office prematurely, visibly beset by painful health issues. He was planning on returning to the private sector. On Thursday the Harper government’s first finance minister, and until last month its only finance minister, passed away.
Mr. Flaherty was a giant in the Harper cabinet, and not just because he ran the department whose control of the purse strings makes it to some extent the ministry of everything. He was one of the few Harper ministers who acted with considerable independent authority. He had experience, the intellectual command of his files and the trust of the Prime Minister. His mind was too quick to be permanently chained to the talking points of faceless minions, and he often took pleasure in sparring with reporters and others who pushed at him with a tough question, or failed to grasp an issue as he did. His last political act, questioning his own party’s promise to introduce income-splitting before the next election, was a manifestation of these best traits. He appreciated the proposal’s political and human downsides to a degree that his colleagues did not, and in a parting gesture, he tried to warn them against their ideological rigidity.
The man’s legacy includes stimulating the economy by deliberately running up the deficit during the Great Recession, and then spending the next five years moving back to a balanced budget. The first part of the story was not something to be expected from a Conservative government or Mr. Flaherty. He was initially reluctant to abandon zero-deficit promises, despite the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. He changed his mind in the face of the evidence; it was the right thing to do. He and his party also reversed course on income trusts, breaking a promise and closing the tax loophole. It was a shocking move, but it was also the right one. Most Canadians came to agree.
He tightened mortgage rules in the face of what looked like a housing bubble; this was necessary and prudent, though he sometimes went overboard, calling bankers to complain about what he felt were overly low interest rates. Faced with calls to build a better safety net for the next generation of retirees, he and his party couldn’t be persuaded to expand the Canada Pension Plan. But he at least improved other retirement options, including by introducing Tax Free Savings Accounts. He also brought in Registered Disability Savings Plans. An example of thoughtful conservatism, it is one of Mr. Flaherty’s least-known legacies, and one of his best.
His departure was a great loss for the Harper government. His passing is a loss for the country.