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(Clay Stang)
(Clay Stang)

One day, we'll look back and thank Jim Flaherty Add to ...

This article was originally published on August 25, 2010.

Some finance ministers travel with bodyguards, surround themselves with an entourage and inhale executive-class perks as freely as oxygen. It's the least they can ask, after all, as they save the world from economic doom.

The dean of the Group of Seven club of economic chiefs begs to differ.

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When Jim Flaherty enters the charmless reception area of a federal office in Toronto, he's towing his own bag, with just a pair of young aides a step behind. Tucked under his right arm are two vuvuzelas, the one-note noisemakers that were the bane of the World Cup. They're a gift from South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, whom Flaherty has just seen at the Group of 20 Summit over the weekend.

The barricades are still up today, Monday, putting Flaherty, like everyone else in downtown Toronto, behind schedule. Rather than sitting in a limo, he's hoofed it.

In this age of shameless political stagecraft, it's conceivable that Flaherty's aides put the suitcase handle in his hand and shoved the horns under his arm just before entering, lest a waiting reporter get the impression that higher office is getting to the minister's head.

Subterfuge seems a possibility only because Flaherty's middle-Canadian ordinariness, which seems genuine enough on the face of things, is a note hit so often that it's become a bit tinny. Likewise Flaherty's long campaign to distance himself from the reputation he earned as a front-bench minister in Ontario's Common Sense Revolution. Flaherty has been dismissed as the policy equivalent of those vuvuzelas: capable of only one loud note, the cut-my-taxes, law-and-order cry of the fervent right winger. And even though he's poised to join Paul Martin on a short list of finance ministers who have steered Canada out of a major economic mess, Flaherty still struggles to gain broad acceptance as a capable policy maker.

Is he the real deal? It's not too soon to think about Jim Flaherty's legacy. Jim Flaherty does, after all.

James Michael Flaherty lost in his first bid for office, competing for a seat in the Ontario legislature in 1990. But five years later, he marched into Queen's Park as a foot soldier in Mike Harris's Common Sense Revolution and, by 1997, was in cabinet.

"Tough and ideological," was how Canadian Lawyer described the Osgoode Hall graduate in late 2000, even though Flaherty, who was Ontario's attorney general at the time, told the publication that his politics weren't so easily labelled. "Maybe I am a populist-I don't know, it depends how you define that, but I relate to the people who elect me, or I try to." A year later, Flaherty was finance minister and a candidate to replace Harris as Tory leader and premier. "People think I have some grand political notion," he told the Toronto Star. "I'm not an ideological person."

Friends back him up on this, arguing that Conservative politics is simply the most comfortable fit for a man whose values are rooted firmly in his Irish middle-class upbringing in Montreal. His inspiration comes not from Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman-rather, he says, it comes from his mother, who ran a household of eight children on a limited budget.

But if Flaherty was a dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist from day one, he had a funny way of showing it. When he arrived at Queen's Park, he aligned himself with the Conservative party's "family values" caucus. Campaigning to replace Harris in 2002, Flaherty called Ernie Eves, the eventual winner, a "pale pink imitation" of Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty. Flaherty's leadership platform included promises to sell off public assets, ban teacher strikes and arrest people for being homeless.

Flaherty also had a tendency, which is still evident, to make a spectacle of himself. He now calls much of the reaction to the Harris agenda "hype." If that's true, then the hype surely was fuelled by TV images of the Attorney General taking a bucket and squeegee in hand to promote his government's crackdown on windshield washing by panhandlers. In 2000, Flaherty chose to represent the province himself at a high-profile constitutional challenge to Canada's child pornography laws. In choosing himself, Flaherty bypassed a stable of experts and put Ontario's arguments for upholding the law in the hands of a lawyer who had appeared at the Supreme Court only once before. According to various accounts, Flaherty's intervention didn't go particularly well.

These inglorious episodes still define Flaherty in some circles. "That's a bit odd, I find, over time," Flaherty says. "If someone actually looks at what I have been responsible for, there is some misunderstanding-because I really am pragmatic. I have become more pragmatic over the years as minister, actually."

There is some support for this view. "I don't view him as partisan, I don't view him as an ideologue," says Christopher Ragan, a McGill University professor who completed an 18-month stint as a visiting economist at Finance in July. "Many people view him that way and it's a hangover from Queen's Park. He was probably more ideological than he is now. Through necessity or desire, he has risen above it."

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