Finance Minister Jim Flaherty may have revealed more than he intended with his confidential, compelling and commendable revelation of his skin malady. For anyone who knows him or has worked for him, it would be an understatement to say getting him to talk publicly about this was difficult.
But for Ottawa watchers looking for all possible meanings, the minister’s cryptic description of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s reaction was even more intriguing. Notifying him in December in a private meeting, we hear of only one reaction, one issue: “Because his concern is always the capacity to perform,” Mr. Flaherty says.
That one sentence neatly sums up the essence of the most formidable and consequential political relationship of this Conservative government. No personal exchange on health and family, no grace note on personal feelings, just the matter-of-fact question of being up to the job.
When Mr. Flaherty invited me to serve as his first chief of staff in 2006, I told him the most important staff priority was “no daylight” between him and the PM. Task one was to ensure no disagreement or friction cropped up between the Prime Minister and his minister of finance or their offices. They were to be as one, at all times. The incoming government had to do what the previous Liberal government had spectacularly failed to do – maintain harmony between the two most important players in the government.
The economic and political success of the Conservative government can be put down almost fully to this extraordinarily resilient relationship and the consummate professionalism of these two politicians. They get it. By contrast, the slow burn and then rapid implosion of the Chrétien government can equally be put down to the corrosive relationship between the prime minister and his finance minister, Paul Martin. It ultimately tore their party apart; and with it, Mr. Martin’s re-election prospects. An anomaly? Well, take a look at Britain. The Labour government enjoyed the same kind of relationship – between Tony Blair and his finance minister and successor, Gordon Brown – as Canada’s Liberals. Toxic is too kind a word to describe what went on in both cases.
I know, I know. Messrs. Martin and Chrétien and Blair and Brown were all leadership rivals at one point. Well, so were Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark, yet Canadian foreign policy never suffered for it and neither did party unity.
Early signs that this time would be different were apparent in the government’s controversial decision to eliminate income trusts in 2006. A tough and necessary decision was taken and could only have been taken because of how the two principal protagonists trusted each other’s instincts and roles. One advised, the other listened, and both agreed. Settling the details in an intense decision-making period between the two of them that October reminded me of just what was at stake each time this relationship engaged on tricky, meaty issues – particularly for a new, minority government still finding its way.
The Harper-Flaherty relationship is stable, productive, and mostly drama-free. And that’s good for governing, no matter what side of the aisle. But it has also come to represent the core of the Conservative party’s electoral appeal and success, combining the western base of the old Reform/Alliance party anchored in Alberta illustrated in the form of Mr. Harper, and the Mike Harris PC party strand anchored in suburban Ontario displayed by Mr. Flaherty. Not since Brian Mulroney and Don Mazankowski has such a fulcrum existed in Conservative party politics.
That new government of 2006 is well along the road to maturity, as is the Harper-Flaherty relationship. It’s clear the two of them have more in common than not. Policy driven and studious on the one hand, yet both representative of the populist conservative strain – “pop cons” – found in this still-new party.
Seven years on, the match has become the right one for both of them. In sickness and in health.
David McLaughlin was chief of staff to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in 2006-07.