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David McLaughlin
David McLaughlin

David McLaughlin

The finance minister’s secret? Know your place Add to ...

Canada has a new Finance Minister and, for all the news and speculation, the choice of Joe Oliver is not surprising. No new beginning, this, but a reinforcing of well-established political management traits we have come to expect in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government.

Jim Flaherty’s departure was neither unheralded nor unexpected. Eight years is a long time to be at the helm of a finance ministry.

But considering it was a change in the second-most important portfolio in Ottawa, Tuesday’s timing was as good as it can get. The budget is for all intents and purposes balanced; an election is 18 months away; and Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty had for the most part avoided policy and political conflicts detrimental to the government’s fortunes. The Prime Minister has a clean slate upon which to write his next budget and prepare his next platform.

There is a simple explanation for all this: Mr. Flaherty never aspired to Mr. Harper’s job. And neither does Mr. Oliver.

It was not so very long ago that the deep personal and political enmity between Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien and finance minister Paul Martin characterized federal politics. Mr. Martin resigned, too, but not before he felt shoved, and he went on to become prime minister. In Britain, prime minister Tony Blair and his chancellor of the exchequer and eventual successor, Gordon Brown, fought each other regularly inside government before Mr. Blair got shoved.

Common to both of these open political secrets were burning leadership ambitions. This proved fatal. Upon getting the top job, neither man was able to carry his party to majority government.

Mr. Flaherty and Mr. Harper clearly watched and learned from this dynamic. It helped that both men knew their place in the political firmament, but this actually underlines rather than obscures the essential political reliance each had on the other. In the political vernacular, neither allowed any political “daylight” to come between them.

Did they disagree on certain issues? Yes, I know that for a fact. Did they trust each other completely? No, I also know that for a fact. But political circumstance kept this both manageable and frankly, productive.

Three circumstances matter most of all.

First, the formative political years of the Flaherty-Harper relationship were forged in the tense and tenuous days of minority government. An inability to work together, or the chasing of separate agendas, would have water-holed the new Conservative ship of state with disastrous results.

Second, upon his appointment as finance minister, it must be recalled, Mr. Flaherty was revelling in a second chance. His career at Queen’s Park in Ontario, after two leadership runs and in opposition with the Progressive Conservatives, had more than stalled. A jump to federal politics was like a new elixir, and he drank well from the cup. Being finance minister for all of Canada is more consequential than being a party leader or even a premier for just one part of Canada. He was obviously determined to make the most of it.

Third, both Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty were, in the end, political pragmatists rather than ideologues. Despite their rich conservative assertions of the past, neither was willing to sacrifice office for dutiful political principle. If spending was called for, the government spent. If tax cuts for individual voting blocs were better politics than structural ones for economic efficiency, the budget wrote them up. Standing too firmly on principle was both risky and unnecessary during four years of minority government, and this notion continues today.

A successful finance minister is not a counterweight to a prime minister, but a complement. Otherwise, there is too much tugging in opposite directions and something, or someone, has to give. And that is never the prime minister.

Mr. Flaherty succeeded because he got this. All the evidence suggests that Joe Oliver gets it too. Forget the obvious qualifications of business knowledge and financial smarts from a Bay Street career. His station has already been circumscribed by those three characteristics: lack of ambition, the tail end of his career and comfort with the relentless pragmatism favoured by this Conservative government.

Mr. Oliver knows his place. That made him the right choice for a Prime Minister who is never not in charge.

Finance is also much more, however. It is a communications high-wire act, where one word too many can move markets. Confidence and gravitas are equally critical personal and professional characteristics. Mr. Flaherty had those in abundance.

Mr. Oliver has Mr. Harper’s confidence. Let’s wait to see if he has ours.

David McLaughlin was chief of staff to Mr. Flaherty in 2006-2007.

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