Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Sun and Calgary Herald, MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley remembers his friend, Jim Flaherty. The former Finance Minister passed away on April 10. Crowley worked with Flaherty as a visiting professor in the Ministry of Finance and chaired Flaherty’s summer policy retreats, and he recalls Flaherty’s willingness to listen and his reluctance to prejudge. After relating Flaherty’s self-deprecating line in speeches about “going on almost as long as it seems”, Crowley concludes “Canada could have used more Jim Flaherty. I know I could have”.
Brian Lee Crowley, April 11, 2014
All of us who watch or who are involved in politics and policy in Canada are still reeling from the shockingly sudden and unexpected death of Jim Flaherty. As someone who knew him better than some, I am going to set aside my usual preoccupation with the dry and impersonal world of policy and talk about my admiration and sense of loss regarding a man who taught me what it is to live a life of service to Canada.
Many others more eloquent than I have already talked about his record as Minister of Finance but I’d like to talk about what I knew of the man.
First a little background about how I came to know Jim Flaherty. For two years I held a senior advisory position at Finance Canada early in his tenure as minister. That was the first time our paths had ever crossed and it gave me the chance observe him quite closely. This is what I remember of Jim.
He asked me to design for him a summer retreat with leading economic decision makers. He loved the two-day, closed-door frank discussions and they have continued every year since.
The year of the first retreat the gnomes at “the centre” of the federal government were extremely nervous about such an event. What if the participants concluded that they didn’t like the government’s economic policies and word got out? Everything possible was done to scupper the retreat, including denying us access to Meech Lake at the very last minute, forcing us to scramble to find another venue. Then they told the minister they expected him to host a dinner for a number of foreign officials there for an international summit at exactly the time we had scheduled the dinner to open the retreat. Flaherty told them, ahem, to take a long walk off a short plank. A lot of people had worked to put on this retreat for him and were coming at his invitation to attend it and he wasn’t going to let us down.
Then there was his demeanour at the retreats themselves. My experience of politicians is that they suffer from verbal incontinence as soon as you put a microphone in front of them. Yet even when he was seated at a table with many of the country’s leading decision makers he proved remarkably able to put a sock firmly in it.
In fact other than offering a word of welcome at the beginning, the occasional clarifying question and a word of thanks at the end, he invariably sat there and listened intently, making copious notes. Several ideas he heard at these events made their way into his budgets, most notably the tax free saving account. He could listen carefully and recognise and then champion good ideas that weren’t his. How refreshing.
For a guy reputed to be an ideologue, I found him delightfully human. In response to an anti-union diatribe from a few retreat participants, Flaherty made a point of saying that he did not agree. His ancestors arrived from Ireland in the 19th century and he pointed out that Irish labourers had been among the earliest trade unionists in Canada; those unions had improved the lot of the Irish and many other dispossessed. He wasn’t about to forget.
Something else he wasn’t about to forget, as the father of a disabled child, was the preoccupation of every parent in those circumstances: what would happen to his child when he was no longer there to provide for him. He decided to create a special saving vehicle for parents in those circumstances to lend a helping hand and wept the day he was able to make the announcement. In other words he took his concerns as a father to his work and decided that he would do something for all the parents and children in similar circumstances. That feels especially poignant today as we think about his legacy.
Not long after my time at Finance I got married. He took the time to write me and my wife a thoughtful, funny and spirited letter which we greatly appreciated and that we still have framed in our den. I was touched and honoured that he not only wrote to us on this occasion, but sent me a letter infused with his own personality and knowledge of me rather than some dull official acknowledgement.
Finally, as I was contemplating Jim’s passing, a signature line of his came to mind. Whenever he was winding up a talk he would almost invariably say, in his self-deprecating way, “Well friends, I have been going for almost as long as it seems….” I wish that he could have gone on even just a little bit longer. Canada could have used more Jim Flaherty. I know I could have.
Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.