Advice to progressives: Don’t airbrush Jim Flaherty’s record out of sympathy for his family

Posted on April 14, 2014, 12:19 am
7 mins

The late Jim Flaherty tries on the traditional new shoes just before delivering his 2012 federal budget. Below, some of Mr. Flaherty’s friends and colleagues: former Ontario premier Mike Harris, in whose government he also served; Prime Minister Stephen Harper; Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

Decent people naturally feel sympathy with the loved ones of any person taken unexpectedly from life, as just-retired federal Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was last week.

We are naturally more inclined to experience such feelings of vicarious loss when the person who has died is charming and engaging – as Mr. Flaherty was said by those who knew him to be. This is especially so if we worked closely with that person, as all members of all parties in Parliament did with Mr. Flaherty in the course of their work. This presumably accounts for the tears shed by NDP Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair on learning of Mr. Flaherty’s death.

But this should not lead us into the temptation to paper over the faults of the departed one, as a great many progressive Canadians have been doing these past few days with the memory of Mr. Flaherty. This temptation is particularly great given our Western cultural superstition about “speaking ill of the dead.”

As the Canadian Press Stylebook wisely advises writers of journalistic obituaries, “the portraits should be exact, with no attempt to brush out wrinkles and warts. Resist the tendency to canonize the departed; very few are true saints.”

The Canadian media has failed spectacularly in this regard in the way it has reported Mr. Flaherty’s death. At any rate, among the accounts that I read, only the Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom, writing with courage and grace, dealt with the reality of Mr. Flaherty’s policy record.

“There is no evidence that I know of to suggest that his motives were anything but public-spirited,” Mr. Walkom wrote. “But he was also an integral part of a government determined to smash or cripple much of what makes Canada a livable country. His death is a reminder that good people can do bad things for the best of motives.”

Mr. Walkom’s column focused on only some of the serial attacks on Canadian values and institutions led by the Harper Government, near the centre of which Mr. Flaherty always stood until only a few days before his death. To wit, mentioned in Mr. Walkom’s account: the piece by piece dismantling of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the erosion of Canadians’ retirement and employment security, and the subversion of our country’s public health care system, all of which continue apace.

In these, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper carries on the destructive ideological wrecking started by the Ontario government led by Conservative Premier Mike Harris from the mid-Nineties through the early Zeroes. Not surprisingly, Mr. Flaherty also stood at the centre of the misnamed and destructive “Common Sense Revolution,” serving at various times as minister of labour, attorney general, finance minister and deputy premier.

Indeed, in his central role in the Harper government, a case can be made that Mr. Flaherty looked so good because so many of the current crop of Reform Party Conservatives are such trolls.

Obviously, Mr. Flaherty’s personal charm outshone that of the prime minister, which is not so much of an accomplishment on its own, enabling him to serve up Mr. Harper’s policy poison with a smile.

Perhaps this did not get Mr. Flaherty very far when he finally raised a warning flag on Mr. Harper’s income-splitting scheme. But, again, such cautious crossing of the uncrossable Mr. Harper hardly merits the Victoria Cross, as several media reports of the past few days have suggested. If, indeed, there was any difference between the two at all.

The important thing to remember when it comes to comparisons between the charmless Mr. Harper and the charming Mr. Flaherty is that their fundamental economic beliefs and the policies they supported were the same – often immoral, destructive and elitist.

It is possible that without his association with Mr. Harper, Mr. Flaherty might not have employed less vicious political tactics. But again, his choice of friends and political allies is evocative, even if we live in an era when guilt by association is frowned upon.

Not only was he a great and permanent ally of Prime Minister Harper, but he was a staunch and committed defender of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, about whom no more need be said. The fact Mr. Ford was a family friend was a good reason for Mr. Flaherty’s sympathy and personal support; it was no excuse for the defence of Mr. Ford’s scandalous misrule.

Moreover, in the context of the game played by all Parliamentarians of all parties, there was an element a good-cop-bad-cop strategy to the public positions taken by Mr. Flaherty versus those of the PM and some of his more odious supporters.

The families of all Canadians deserve the same certainty and security as Mr. Flaherty’s family now has. People who work to keep them from having it ought not to be portrayed as heroes, especially by those of us who are not parliamentary insiders.

This is not speaking ill of the dead. It is only speaking the unvarnished and necessary truth.

Mr. Flaherty’s state funeral is scheduled to take place Wednesday in Toronto.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

15 Comments to: Advice to progressives: Don’t airbrush Jim Flaherty’s record out of sympathy for his family

  1. Rob

    April 14th, 2014

    Flaherty was against deficit spending except when he was for it. Harris’ government made populist tax cuts rather than balancing the Ontario budget. Harper/Flaherty made populist tax cuts and then were totally blindsided by the Wall St. induced global economic collapse. Their tax cuts left the government with fewer fiscal resources to deal with it. He didn’t live to see a balanced budget, and with Canada’s mean lifespan of 78 years, I doubt any of us reading this will live to see a Conservative balanced budget, either.

    Reply
  2. Sam Gunsch

    April 14th, 2014

    re: “when it comes to comparisons between the charmless Mr. Harper and the charming Mr. Flaherty is that their fundamental economic beliefs and the policies they supported were the same – often immoral, destructive and elitist.”

    Exactly.

    At the link, a useful column about the appropriateness of a state funeral:
    http://blogs.ottawacitizen.com/2014/04/13/why-a-state-funeral-for-jim-flaherty/

    Sam Gunsch

    Reply
    • Filostrato

      April 14th, 2014

      Good piece. I was wondering why, too.

      Reply
  3. Kickthebumsout

    April 14th, 2014

    Thank you for writing this. I was sick to death of the mass media this past week, acting like the death of Mr Flaherty was such a loss. Too bad he didn’t have the heart attack sooner, I say. Flaherty is a good example of why you can’t rely on appearances and social graces – the meat is the matter, and you summed up his vicious record quite nicely above, the banality of evil so to speak.

    Reply
    • April 14th, 2014

      I don’t agree with this comment. Mr. Flaherty’s death is a tragedy, like any premature death, and a great loss to his family, for whom we feel should feel great sympathy. The point is that, as the CP Stylebook advises, we ought not to gloss over the reality’s of the deceased’s record. The great brouhaha on Twitter by the usual suspects of the right about this piece is ironic, given this this is the crowd who thought Ezra Levant dressing up in an orange wig and openly mocking Jack Layton’s death was appropriate. It is only an effort, of course, to suppress commentary about the government’s record, a familiar technique.

      Reply
      • Chris

        April 15th, 2014

        Mr. Climenhaga, you could have waited a week or two until sharing your dismay with Mr. Flaherty’s policies. That you chose not to was unfortunate. Those who spoke ill of Jack Layton after his passing were labelled at best as cranks, at worst un-Canadian. I don’t think you are either but your post is shabby and beneath you. I have lost some respect for you today.

        Reply
  4. V. Jobson

    April 14th, 2014

    I think the Conservatives are still jealous of the widespread grassroots mourning for Jack Layton and of the fine passionate speeches that were made at his funeral. It was a rare gracious move by Harper to make it a state funeral and I’m sure he regretted it, and wants payback for it. The Conservatives did a pretty good job at Peter Lougheed’s funeral, but they just don’t have the golden tongues of the NDP.

    Reply
  5. ronmac

    April 14th, 2014

    In these last few days commentators have been full of praise for Flaherty’s “pragmatism” in the face of the 2009 financial crisis, his willingness to overcome his “ideological” zeal for “balanced budgets” and go into the red for the “good of the country.”

    What Flaherty did was bail out Canadian banks who were caught in the 2008 US housing bubble crash. Flaherty’s 2009 budget went from a projected $2.3 billion surplus to a $64 billion deficit with Canadian banks receiving upwards of $75 billion (or more). You can read about it here:

    http://business.financialpost.com/2012/04/30/did-canadian-banks-receive-a-secret-bailout/

    To paraphrase the words of JFK, when it comes to bailing out the banking class, “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe…”etc.

    Reply
  6. Filostrato

    April 14th, 2014

    “The families of all Canadians deserve the same certainty and security as Mr. Flaherty’s family now has.”

    Yup. Most Con MP’s serve only to represent the Harper government to their constituents. Similarly, the government seems to exist only to better things for itself and its friends. An ever-swelling PMO with few, if any, employees with any qualifications, experience or achievements write talking points for the trained seals to read. It’s embarrassing to watch. Similarly, education- and experience-free Harper loyalists trash our electoral system, the protection of our environment, the training and education of our young people, the health and welfare of everyone except those who agree with them.

    Having had the benefit of a system put in place by people with much greater vision than themselves, they withdraw the benefits from others as they better themselves, pulling the ladder up after them, as it were, once they’ve achieved the heights.

    Flaherty was for the deregulation of the banking system before he was against it. It was a matter of dumb luck that the crash happened before our bank regulations could be trashed. Tom Walkom’s piece in the Toronto Star was a welcome piece of reason amid the hype.

    De mortuis nil nisi bonum? Then I won’t say anything.

    Reply
    • Tom in Ontario

      April 14th, 2014

      “Flaherty was for deregulation of the banking system before he was against it. It was a matter of dumb luck that the crash happened before our bank regulations could be trashed” It could be argued that the reason Economist Harper was thwarted prior to the crash was the minority government situation. We’ll never know, but had Steve and Jim tried, the Liberals and NDP might have delayed the process long enough for the crash to come along and save Canada’s skin. Oh for those halcyon days of effective opposition to the neanderthal shenanigans of the Tea Party.

      As for “De mortuis nil nisi bonum”, you needn’t say a thing. Actions speak louder than words.

      Reply
  7. April 14th, 2014

    I thought this was quite balanced. I suspect some of the outrage on twitter is driven by politicians (perhaps unconsciously) worrying about their own legacies when they kick the bucket.

    Reply
  8. Pogo

    April 14th, 2014

    When I first thought about Harper it was after the Stockwell Day debacle and I guessed at the time that he was less ideologue and more the pragmatist attempting to herd the cats on the right back into some useful unity. Honestly, I thought he might make a decent finance critic. That was then. Now what is on display for all to see is a very complex and disturbing example of what can happen in our system when the most baleful stars align. But at the service of us tireless orcs on the left I’ll power up my asbestos lined Ouija board and get back to you all when I’ve discussed the matter with William Lyon MacKenzie King and ol’ Dick himself Nixon. I’d imagine they have some insight. But I suspect they’ll confirm an urgent order for F35s and war monuments is in the offing.
    As far as RH J Flaherty, I’d say worse and better have had marching bands and blank fired salutes, and I must add I felt truly sorry he had so little time away from PMO Mordor! RIP but no legacy for you.

    Reply
  9. Sam Gunsch

    April 14th, 2014

    Paul Wells recounts various anecdotes about Flaherty…
    …innovation among the “can-do” leaders from the right.

    “jail the homeless.”

    excerpt:
    “And Jim Flaherty, a smirky leprechaun like an Irish cop from central casting. He wanted to jail the homeless.”

    http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/a-light-goes-out-on-parliament-hill/
    ==========
    Reminds one of AB’s in-your-face innovative social justice policy… the good old days with the right leadership:

    http://www.straight.com/news/367306/ralph-klein-has-left-lasting-mark-canada

    excerpt: “And when Klein gave Alberta welfare recipients one-way bus passes to B.C., the then-NDP provincial government responded with a three-month residency requirement for anyone who wanted to collect social assistance.”

    A B.C. Supreme Court judge later struck down that measure as unconstitutional.

    http://symclark.blogspot.ca/2007/10/ralph-kleins-government.html
    excerpt:
    I asked him about his government buying bus tickets for people on welfare to move to British Columbia and move away from his province Alberta. He admitted his government did buy those bus tickets and he laughed.

    I told him I thought that was unfair of him and he should have treated people on social services better and not cutting their welfare rates by 20 percent.

    I told him I was glad I was a disability pension in Ontario and not in Alberta.

    Everyone clapped after he spoke. ”

    Sam Gunsch

    Reply
  10. Allan Kirk

    April 14th, 2014

    My thanks to those with better memories than mine ; I only knew the tributes struck a discordant note and not the ring of truth. Yes, it would better not to speak ill of the dead…if only the air was not so full of lies! One is duty-bound to try to redress the balance, even if only be a very little, is one not?

    Reply
  11. Karen

    April 14th, 2014

    “Indeed, in his central role in the Harper government, a case can be made that Mr. Flaherty looked so good because so many of the current crop of Reform Party Conservatives are such trolls.”

    And that, is the heart of it.

    I was shocked, and profoundly sad, at the news of Mr. Flaherty’s death. It seemed the fates were cruel to take him as he was embarking on a new life. Anyone with friends, family or a face in the mirror near his age would have been shocked by it.

    However, the tributes have been all out of proportion (and disproportionately laudatory) when a more balanced view would in fact be a stronger tribute. The man did some very good things in his life, but he did many bad things (irrespective of how noble his motives may or may not have been). Like the ridiculously over the top tributes to Mr. Layton, it feels slightly icky.

    Mr. Layton should not have had a state funeral; neither should Mr. Flaherty.

    Reply

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