Last week, just before he more or less encouraged credit-rating agencies to downgrade Canada’s largest province, Jim Flaherty informed the people running Ontario that they need “to grow up.”
It might be about time for the federal Finance Minister to start following his own advice.
The public sniping between Mr. Flaherty and his provincial counterpart Dwight Duncan has long had the appearance of a dog-and-pony show, with two partisans who get along in private scoring points by attacking each other publicly. But Mr. Flaherty’s behaviour over the past week, which has left some fellow Conservatives shaking their heads, suggests it’s something more serious – a man whose sole preoccupation should be the country’s fiscal and economic well-being, letting his judgment be clouded by resentments dating back to his own time in provincial politics.
Mr. Flaherty’s criticisms of the big-spending ways of the provincial Liberals, delivered more or less daily after Mr. Duncan tabled his budget last Tuesday, carried more than a whiff of vitriol. Dalton McGuinty’s government has variously been described as “sad,” “badly managed,” a “serious problem” for the rest of the country, not worthy of trust, with “no one to blame but themselves” for the current fiscal crunch.
Mr. Flaherty’s views, while not unique, are somewhat compromised by his own record – and not just because federal spending growth under his watch has roughly mirrored what’s happened provincially.
As it happens, Ontario’s decade of big spending was kick-started not in 2004, when Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals delivered their first fiscal plan, but three years earlier. And Mr. Flaherty was the provincial treasurer who got the ball rolling, with a 4.3-per-cent increase to program expenditures in the only provincial budget he tabled. (Those increases were 5.8 per cent and 8.8 per cent in the two subsequent years, when Mr. Flaherty was no longer finance minister but remained a prominent member of the Progressive Conservative government.)
Mr. Flaherty hardly has a monopoly over hypocrisy. After all, he’s attacking a provincial government that laments a flattening of increases to federal health transfers at roughly 4 per cent annually as a grand injustice, even as it attempts to flatten its own health-spending boosts to half that rate. And he could reasonably point out that he’s never spent a government into the kind of hole in which Ontario, plagued with a $15-billion deficit that’s at least partly structural, currently finds itself.
But what makes his recent broadsides so inappropriate, is his willingness to jeopardize the economic interests of his home province, and in turn those of the entire country.
It’s no great secret that Mr. Duncan’s latest budget was aimed largely at convincing credit raters, and to some extent the markets, that Ontario has a credible plan to get back to balance. If he failed to do so, the potential consequences – higher interest rates, lower investment, a subsequent hit to revenues – could put the province in a vicious circle.
It remains to be seen if those forces have been appeased. But given the nationwide impact that an eventual debt crisis in Ontario could have, Mr. Flaherty should unreservedly be hoping Mr. Duncan pulled it off.
If Ontario gets downgraded, primary responsibility will be worn (as it should be) by the provincial government. But the fact is, nobody knows exactly what sets these things off. So if he has his doubts, the federal finance minister – who most people would expect to be selling stability with every breath, unless it were absolutely unconscionable to do so – would have good reason to keep them to himself.
And yet there was Mr. Flaherty, just after the “grow up” business, seemingly gloating that “a large government in Canada is not trusted by the rating agencies around the world.”
If Mr. Flaherty had retired to the private sector after his career in provincial politics – which ended after the Tories were beaten by Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals, and then he lost his second consecutive bid for his party’s leadership – he’d be free to gloat about what’s befallen Ontario since. Or he could plot on behalf of his wife Christine Elliott, the comparatively even-tempered PC MPP whose name invariably and somewhat unfairly gets invoked whenever Mr. Flaherty descends on the provincial scene.
But in his current role, his fixation is peculiar and unhelpful. Mr. Flaherty is one of the most successful federal politicians in the country. And yet, to the detriment of his government’s interests and his own hard-won stature, he’s acting like he wishes he were still in provincial opposition.
It was unclear last week what precisely Mr. Flaherty’s standard for maturity is. But sometimes, growing up just means moving on.