Jim Flaherty’s long goodbye began with his last budget.
Senior government sources say the 2014 budget date was set earlier in part to accommodate his exit strategy: giving the 64-year-old MP from Whitby, Ont., a sooner start on selling the fiscal plan that would demonstrate his work was done and the country on a sure path back to surplus.
“Part of the reason for the early budget was so that he could get the budget out, and then make this announcement,” a senior government source said.
“Moving it up created some flexibility for him to table it and then make his announcement [and then] make the transition to private life.”
Mr. Flaherty made the decision official with a Monday afternoon visit to Langevin Block, the federal building across from Parliament Hill that houses the Prime Minister’s Office. Stephen Harper and Mr. Flaherty met for about a half an hour, reminiscing on the eight years spent working closely together in the two most senior positions in the federal government.
The prime minister-finance minister relationship is one of the most important partnerships in federal politics and Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty, while markedly different in personality, managed to make it work for years. Sources say the Prime Minister’s Office nevertheless has had a reserve plan ready, given Mr. Flaherty’s debilitating skin disorder, on how it would replace him.
It would have been awkward for Mr. Flaherty to stay and deliver what would have been a 2015 pre-election budget after deciding not to run. As Mr. Flaherty pointed out in his statement, the decision to leave politics after the budget was tabled was made with his family earlier this year and did not come as a surprise to those who are close to him.
Still, the timing of Mr. Flaherty’s departure – right before Mr. Harper leaves the country for a week of meetings on the Ukraine crisis – is not ideal for the Conservatives. It leaves new Finance Minister Joe Oliver only days to get briefed before facing questions when the Commons returns next week while the Prime Minister is overseas.
A friend of Mr. Flaherty expressed surprise it happened now. People close to the former finance minister expected he’d leave in June, not March.
Mr. Flaherty, suffering both from a skin disease and the side effects of the steroids use to treat it, had said publicly for more than a year that he wanted to remain in politics until the federal budget was balanced.
While he made a point in his farewell statement to rule out his health as the reason for leaving, a source close to Mr. Flaherty said his family pressed him over the Christmas holidays to step down, specifically because of concern over his well-being. “His family’s been worried about him,” the source said.
Over the past year, the finance minister had been talking more about the possibility of working in the private sector, according to a Conservative source close to Mr. Flaherty. The notion of following past politicians such as Jim Prentice into a corporate position that involves more money – along with less stress and travel – began to have increasing appeal.
In the last few weeks there were more tangible signs that Mr. Flaherty was on his way out.
After telling reporters in February that he hadn’t decided whether he will run in the 2015 election, Mr. Flaherty opened up a rift inside the Conservative Party after he questioned the merits of delivering on an income-splitting pledge for Canadian families – a key piece of the party’s re-election effort.
The comment, which Mr. Flaherty made within a day of delivering the budget, opened up a public chasm between Mr. Flaherty and Mr. Harper. The Prime Minister was forced to contradict his finance minister, making it clear he was unwilling to let Mr. Flaherty dictate the future of a key election promise.
In late February, he gave the first real signal he might be leaving – telling a Reuters reporter he hadn’t decided whether he would run again.
Mr. Flaherty, a lawyer by trade, is expected to take corporate board appointments, and perhaps join a law firm – a life that will no doubt be less pressure.
“That job takes a pretty heavy toll on your health,” another friend of the former finance minister said Tuesday.