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andré picard

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty speaks with reporters as he leaves Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 6, 2014.JUSTIN TANG/The Canadian Press

Much has been written in recent days about the legacy of former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty. The fiscal and economic policies he championed have been praised and vilified, his role in buffering Canada from the global recession hotly debated, and there has been much speculation on why he is leaving the powerful post at this time.

But there is one aspect of his contributions to public life that is indisputable and far too overlooked: Mr. Flaherty has left a long-lasting gift to Canadians with disabilities and their families in the form of the Registered Disability Savings Plan.

We too often think of politicians as self-serving but this is an initiative that took a great deal of personal commitment and which provides no political payback. Mr. Flaherty did this because it was the right thing to do and it provides a great benefit to a disenfranchised group. Compassionate conservatism may be out of favour in Ottawa, but the minister of finance managed to sneak some in under the radar.

The RDSP is a cousin of the Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) but tweaked to fit the needs of those with physical, developmental and psychiatric disabilities.

The RDSP has a fascinating history, one that speaks to both Mr. Flaherty's passion and compassion.

In the May 2006 budget – which is best remembered for a cut in the Goods and Services Tax – a seemingly throwaway line appeared: "The Minister of Finance will appoint a small group of experts to examine ways to help parents save for the long-term financial security of a child with severe disabilities, and provide their recommendations to the minister within six months."

Only two weeks earlier, Mr. Flaherty had been approached by the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network, a group of B.C. parents committed to ensuring the financial security of their disabled adult children.

The minister of finance read their pitch and immediately saw the benefits of using the tax system to create more independence for a largely forgotten and impoverished minority. The approach appealed to his conservative ideology and spoke to him as a parent. (One of Mr. Flaherty's triplets, John, has a severe developmental disability; he suffered brain damage after contracting encephalitis as a baby.)

In the 2007 budget, details of the RDSP were announced, and the program was up and running in 2008. For a public policy initiative, that's lightning speed and there is no doubt who was lighting a fire under the bureaucracy's butt.

Under the program, money can be set aside for a person with a disability (by family or the person him– or herself) and investments accrue tax-free; the RDSP is much like a RRSP, except withdrawals can begin at age 45. For example, the parent of a 15-year-old who puts $200 a month into the plan would provide her with an additional $2,500 a month by age 65. Also, the rules are such that her other income, such as disability benefits, would not be clawed back as a result.

"This is a really far-sighted program," says Jack Styan, vice-president of strategic initiatives at Community Living B.C. and one of the PLAN parents who first approached Mr. Flaherty.

In fact, beyond its financial aspect, the RDSP tacitly recognizes the importance of integration. For the first time in history, people with disabilities (even severe ones) are outliving their parents. They are also making inroads in the working world rather than being hidden away in 'workshops' and other segregated programs.

Mr. Flaherty has also used his power to push that change; in the 2012 federal budget, he commissioned a blue-ribbon panel and they produced a report entitled "Rethinking DisAbility (CCT) in the Private Sector," which called on business to step up their game.

But back to the RDSP. What distinguishes it from a RRSP is that the federal government also makes a contribution, like it does with the Registered Education Savings Plan, but far more generous. Those eligible for a RDSP can get a grant of up to $3,500 a year, and low-income parents can receive an additional Disability Savings Bond of up to $1,000 annually. That could not have been an easy sell for Mr. Flaherty at a time of significant budget cuts.

More than 81,000 people have taken advantage of the program and, to date, Ottawa has contributed close to $1-billion.

Given that there are 3.8 million Canadians with a disability – including about 500,000 who would be eligible for a RDSP – the numbers are a bit of a disappointment.

The main knock on the program is that it takes a lot of paperwork – which is the reality with any program with eligibility. In this case, a person's disability has to be so severe that they qualify for a Disability Tax Credit.

There have also been some technical disputes with the provinces about who can set up accounts when the beneficiary is not deemed legally competent. And Mr. Flaherty has lobbied them relentlessly and pushed bureaucrats hard to make the program more user-friendly.

He noted too that the principal reason uptake has been slow is that so many people with disabilities live in poverty. The employment rate for those with significant disabilities is about 15 per cent so there is not a lot of spare cash to contribute to a retirement plan.

Similarly, many families caring for children (and adult children) at home are tapped out and too overwhelmed to even go looking for the "free money" from the federal government.

Mr. Flaherty, who is also deeply involved in the Special Olympics (his son John plays baseball), heard this from a lot of parents, so he actually funded disability groups to do outreach and actively recruit those who would benefit most.

"What I appreciate is that he didn't just introduce the program, he's showed a commitment to promoting it and improving it," Mr. Styan said.

Regardless of their political stripes or what they think of his economic stewardship more generally, Canadians should be proud of Mr. Flaherty's championing of the RDSP, a program that remains unique in the world. It's real impact will come decades down the road, when people have a little more cash in their pockets to care for themselves and their families and, hopefully, a lot more independence and dignity to go along with it.

That's what a legacy is really made of.

André Picard is The Globe's public health columnist.

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