Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has resigned.
He is the biggest fish to swim out of Prime Minister Harper’s pond since then-Environment Minister, and de facto second in command in the Cabinet, Jim Prentice, left to make oodles of money in the banking business.
Flaherty issued a statement noting some of what he considers to be the highlights of his eight years as Finance Minister.
Those include reducing business taxes to the lowest level in the G7.
He does not mention that the corporate thank you for that generous give-away via the tax system has not been to go on a hiring spree. To the contrary, most corporations are sitting on mountains of cash, and investing not at all.
He also mentions the tax-free savings account, introduced near the height of the recession, at a time when what the economy needed was spending and investment, not rich people squirreling away even more money, tax-free.
Given the number of years he spent at the job, Flaherty’s list is rather short.
His final achievement is “action to strengthen securities regulation,” by which Flaherty seems to mean his quite salutary efforts at creating a federal security regulation agency. That may happen in the future; it is not a reality yet.
The departing Finance Minister does not mention, with any sense of pride, his bloated budget omnibus bills.
Could it be that he is not too proud of those?
Those bills were the sneaky legislative devices through which the Harper government radically changed the federal environmental regulatory regime, and abolished or radically altered some of the most important environmental laws Canada has ever had. Those laws include the Fisheries and Navigable Waters Acts.
Nor does Flaherty mention the unconscionable witch hunts, via tax audits, his omnibus bills unleashed on a number of environmental non-profit organizations.
A relatively reasonable Minister on an über-partisan team?
Of course, on the day he departs, all and sundry will be finding nice things to say about the now former Finance Minister. He did seem like a competent and reasonable, and not viciously partisan, Minister, even to his opposition colleagues.
And, based on his expertise and experience, Flaherty was head and shoulders above most of his caucus and Cabinet colleagues.
Still, without meaning to throw water on anyone’s goodbye parade, Flaherty’s lowest moment must have come toward the end of 2008, when he introduced what in Ottawa jargon is known as the “fiscal update,” a set-piece event which is normally preparatory to the budget that comes fairly early in the new year.
In 2008, the Harper government was feeling its oats, having just won a renewed mandate, with an increase in seats, though not (yet) a majority.
The hapless Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion was on his way out, and the NDP’s Jack Layton was on his way up, but had not achieved the heights he would in 2011.
Late in 2008 the world was also in the midst of the worst financial crisis and economic downturn since the 1930s. As a consequence, all the G20 countries, including Canada, had agreed to bring in stimulatory government spending measures to create jobs and fuel consumer and business spending. The goal was to prevent a further slide to catastrophe.
Having made that commitment just days earlier, Flaherty blithely ignored it in the 2008 update.
Instead, he telegraphed no stimulus spending whatsoever, and — incredibly — projected that, despite the obvious financial chaos all around, Canada would somehow run a small surplus in the coming year.
It was a nonsense projection, which must have embarrassed every sane official of the Finance Department. Not a single, independent reputable economist believed it.
Plus, to add insult to injury, Flaherty threw in an utterly gratuitous and highly partisan fiscal measure. He announced that the government would abolish the per capita grant to political parties that Chrétien had brought in as a part of his major reform of election finance — a reform the Conservatives had not opposed, at the time!
Even a weakened Liberal opposition could not stomach Flaherty’s update’s insult to fair Parliamentary practice (it was, in fact, only a precursor for how the Conservatives would govern with a majority) and, more importantly, to economic common sense.
The Liberals, and all the opposition parties, vowed to vote non-confidence in the government, even though the election had only happened a few weeks earlier. Instead of forcing a new, and costly campaign, the opposition told the Governor General and Canadians that it was ready to form a coalition government to replace Harper’s.
To head that all off, Prime Minister Harper prorogued Parliament (after it had only met a few times) and scrapped the political party financing changes (he brought them back when he got his majority).
Flaherty and Harper took credit for a policy that had been forced on them
When Parliament got back to business a couple of months later, Flaherty had discovered the value of stimulus spending, even if it created a deficit. The government launched a major infrastructure spending program — accompanied by major self-serving advertising — and rode that program to a majority victory in 2011.
But that is all another story.
On that day in 2008 when Flaherty had to try to tell Canadians he really believed the government would run a surplus, he looked exceedingly uncomfortable — almost as uncomfortable as he looked more recently when he had to sit silent while the Prime Minister answered questions put to him on the wisdom of an income splitting tax provision.
Flaherty had made it clear that he is against that particular ill-thought-out election promise. The next Finance Minister will no doubt be entirely on board with Stephen Harper’s view of the world.