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Jim Flaherty (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Jim Flaherty (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

Lunch with Jim Flaherty Add to ...

This interview was originally published in Report on Business April 9, 2011.

Jim Flaherty tries to avoid carbohydrates to keep his weight down, but it's not such a worry during election campaigns. He figures he'll walk off many of the calories we're tucking into at Bella Notte, an Italian eatery in Whitby, Ont., by spending his afternoon knocking on doors.

The campaign trail is familiar territory for the 61-year-old, who grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Montreal. In the summer of 1968, he came home from Princeton - which he attended with help from a hockey scholarship - to learn his oldest sister had a task for him and their six siblings. She was dating the Liberal candidate in their riding, and she wanted help.

"She said, 'You're all Liberals, go knock on doors.' And so we did," Mr. Flaherty recalls. It was the height of Trudeaumania, and the Flaherty clan was right in the middle of it. But over the following decade, as the hockey-mad undergrad transformed into a Bay Street lawyer, he became disenchanted with Pierre Trudeau. "I thought it was really quite irresponsible, these deficits and debt and the inflation that followed," he says.

A conservative attitude about spending began to cement in Mr. Flaherty, who still speaks with admiration about the budgeting techniques he picked up from his mother. It's tough to miss the irony, then, that he would one day become the finance minister responsible for the largest deficit in the nation's history.

In December, 2008, Mr. Flaherty found himself in control of Canada's purse strings at the onset of the most challenging economic period since the Depression. He and other global leaders decided the best way to beat the crisis was to throw money at it. And so, after vowing never to preside over a deficit, Mr. Flaherty drove the country deep into the red.

As stressful as the period was, Mr. Flaherty says he misses the adrenalin rushes that came with making tough decisions. By comparison, even elections are easier to take on. "During the events of the last few years, during the economic crisis, it's been fairly stressful. A lot of travelling around the world and a lot of travelling in Canada and the U.S. I spend more time at home during election time, which is kind of nice."

Mr. Flaherty has been keeping a fairly low profile in the runup to the election on May 2. His 2011 budget in March, which is now a key part of the Conservative election platform, essentially kicked off the election as opposition leaders decried what they said was a lack of action on affordable housing, childcare, and measures for the elderly. But he hasn't backed away from it.

This is the finance minister, after all, who stunned investors in 2006 by shutting down income trusts. He has pumped tens of billions of dollars into the economy in the blink of an eye. He has taken on the banks for ABM fees and online insurance sales. He has barrelled through opposition to a national securities regulator. And, if his party is able to pull off a majority government, he plans a radical overhaul of the country's tax code - something that hasn't been done since the sixties.

He's also not one to hesitate. He remembers standing next to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in December of 2008, the period in which they crafted the stimulus plan, and saying: "Let's all hold our breath, because if this doesn't work we're running this country into one huge deficit."

In fact, he has worried his decision to pump billions into the country's mortgage financing market spurred some consumers to take on more debt than they could afford - a fear he tried to counteract by repeatedly tightening up the rules about who can take on a mortgage.

"I do listen to lots of people," he says. "Even the developers in the last year were saying to me - it's in their self-interest to build all these houses and condos - even they were saying 'It's okay to tighten up a bit more, we have a level of discomfort in what we're seeing.'

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