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Finance Minister Jim Flaherty arrives for a G20 meeting in Paris on Oct. 14, 2011. (Michel Euler/AP)
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty arrives for a G20 meeting in Paris on Oct. 14, 2011. (Michel Euler/AP)

Flaherty ditches partisan sniping with paean to public service Add to ...

Just over a year ago I watched Finance Minister Jim Flaherty deliver a speech at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa that raised eyebrows because the level of partisan bluster he displayed was unexpected, even for these times – but more especially from this man.

He accused Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc members of “putting their own interests above those of the country” from the beginning of the recession. He likened his opponents to pirates who wanted to seize control of the ship of state and who would surely put it on the rocks. Some in the room wondered aloud if this was a script he was forced to read. Some of the arguments were almost comically over the top and Mr. Flaherty’s body language seemed to suggest he was aware of that.

Last week, Mr. Flaherty gave quite a different speech – one I gather he wrote himself and that may be a better reflection of what he really thinks about politics, public service and his political adversaries.

He was addressing students at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business and the focus of his remarks was an invocation to take up public service. No, he was not recruiting troops to fight for conservative ideology, as Mr. Flaherty’s critics might suspect.

Instead, in his remarks he drew inspiration from a variety of sources, some of which might startle entrenched Conservative partisans. He quoted Robert Kennedy (a Democrat), Teddy Roosevelt (a Progressive and Republican) and Woodrow Wilson (a Progressive and Democrat). He called Liberal Wilfred Laurier one of Canada’s greatest prime ministers. He spoke admiringly of Red Tory centrist Bill Davis, calling him one of the great Ontario premiers of the 20th Century.

The case he made for public service was creative and nuanced. He avoided pitching it as a duty or obligation. Instead, he told students that public service would be good for them as people, rewarding in ways they might not easily imagine.

He acknowledged that many of the students would have more financially rewarding alternatives in the private sector. In public service they could expect long days, little sleep, difficult work, and having to wait decades to see results of their efforts. He didn’t pretend these things away, but instead said they were “character building” and that spending time in public service would make them happier people. Here’s an excerpt:

“We are, of course, not in the world alone and our lives here are finite. People seek to have an impact on broader public issues recognizing the intrinsic value of reaching out to others not only to maintain and reinforce shared common values, but also to create new initiatives and innovations. This societal public good is not incompatible with the private good. Our individual and family responsibilities are primary. Yet the desire to accumulate private goods in the end does not lead to satisfaction simply because, as we all learn, enough is never enough. On that train, some people will always be in the cars ahead.”

In an era where bloody-minded partisanship has been the rule rather than the exception, the Finance Minister was, happily, out of tune. He acknowledged public skepticism about politics and said that like other occupations it “does not exclude the self-absorbed or the narrow minded.” But in his experience, MPs of all parties, and members of the non-partisan public service at all levels, feel that public service is an honour. Here’s some more:

“We are all in this together seeking the public good and that, with the exception of some scoundrels to be found in all walks of life, including politics, we share that goal. … It matters little to me if you are, or end up, a Conservative, Liberal, NDP or Green party supporter. (Although I hope you find conservative principles engaging.) What matters most is when you walk out of this institution on graduation day you get engaged in your community, province and country.”

Earlier this week on CBC’s At Issue panel on The National, we had a discussion about what might be done to reverse the long-term decline in voting behaviour, a problem particularly severe among young Canadians. In my research, I find no shortage of young people who want to make a positive difference in the lives of others. But they’ve come to doubt if politics is really about that.

Speeches like this one can only help open their minds.

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