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Don't airbrush Jim Flaherty's record because of sympathy for his family

Jim Flaherty

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 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 Flaherty in the course of their work. This presumably accounts for the tears shed by NDP Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair on learning of 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 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 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 Flaherty's policy record.

"There is no evidence that I know of to suggest that his motives were anything but public-spirited," 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."

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 Flaherty always stood until only a few days before his death. To wit, mentioned in 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-'90s through the early 2000s. Not surprisingly, 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 Flaherty looked so good because so many of the current crop of Reform Party Conservatives are such trolls.

Obviously, 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 Harper's policy poison with a smile.

Perhaps this did not get Flaherty very far when he finally raised a warning flag on Harper's income-splitting scheme. But, again, such cautious crossing of the uncrossable 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 Harper and the charming 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 Harper, 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 Ford was a family friend was a good reason for Flaherty's sympathy and personal support; it was no excuse for the defence of 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 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 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.

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

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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