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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Little flash, but Flaherty seldom fumbled Add to ...

Jim Flaherty was a steady hand in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet.

Mr. Flaherty, who resigned Tuesday, wasn’t flashy, although he could show flashes of partisan rhetoric. He had a wry sense of humour in a largely humourless government. He actually knew how to give short answers, rare in a politician.

He was handed many balls, and seldom fumbled them. He was one of a handful of cabinet ministers whom the Prime Minister and his entourage felt they could trust. He knew his principles and stuck to them: small-c conservative, lower taxes, smaller government.

Except, of course, when the financial recession struck in 2008. After a considerable period of uncertainty, Mr. Flaherty and Mr. Harper opened the spending floodgates in 2009 for something called the Economic Action Plan, taxpayer-paid advertisements for which are still appearing five years later.

That spending splurge ran against Mr. Flaherty’s grain, but he felt the severity of the recession left him no choice. And he was right, even though the spending pushed back his intention to balance the budget and lower Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio.

His last budget essentially balanced the federal books, because the contingency fund was larger than the very small anticipated deficit. A balanced budget is what he promised. He leaves with that promise all but fulfilled.

Someone else leaving shortly will be deputy finance minister Michael Horgan, who is expected to announce his departure in a matter of days or weeks. Mr. Horgan and Mr. Flaherty worked together on many budgets and other files. It seems fitting that they both depart at roughly the same time.

One got the sense recently that Mr. Flaherty, who was Mr. Harper’s first and only Finance Minister, had been playing out the string. Although he said in his departing statement that he was on the way to recovery from a skin disease, he did look puffy and sometimes quite tired. His job was tough enough; doing it while battling an ailment would have made the task even tougher.

Then there was that postbudget public disagreement with Mr. Harper over income splitting. This was not the reason for Mr. Flaherty’s departure, but the optics of the disagreement seemed strange.

Mr. Flaherty expressed doubt about the wisdom of this Conservative Party promise several times, only to be contradicted by Mr. Harper and would-be prime minister Jason Kenney. (Party sources have said the Prime Minister actually privately shares Mr. Flaherty’s concerns but is stuck with the political promise.)

Idle speculation was put about that somehow this Harper-Flaherty disagreement was part of a good-cop, bad-cop co-ordinated effort. But public schisms between a prime minister and finance minister are not supposed to take place, and none ever had between the two. Such a public disagreement usually means the end for the minister, which is what has now occurred, but seemingly on Mr. Flaherty’s own terms and timing, with no hard feelings.

Mr. Flaherty had said he would fight another election, but his health and age always made that unlikely. His wife is in Ontario provincial politics. They have three children. If he wanted another career, now was the time to go, to give Mr. Harper time to break in a replacement, although the next budget will be the last before the next election. As such, it will be politically charged, which means it will largely be crafted by the Prime Minister.

By dint of longevity, the financial crisis and the network of international economic institutions that now exist, Mr. Flaherty was frequently overseas. There, he earned a solid reputation for knowing his files and a certain admiration for having kept Canada’s deficits in relative check. What he would almost never do was to give credit to the previous Liberal government for having turned over the books in stellar shape, but then such is the nature of partisan politics.

Mr. Flaherty leaves with plenty of critics who disagreed with his policies, but that, too, is the nature of politics. He leaves with his personal reputation intact, even enhanced.

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