The Harper Index

Flaherty, Jim – "One of nature's hard-liners" and a key player on Harper's team

Affable style enables finance minister to skate past $6B deficit he helped leave Ontario.

Jim Flaherty maintains credibility despite the $6B deficit his government left Ontario.OTTAWA, March 12, 2008: Finance minister Jim Flaherty is currently in the headlines promoting his budget, threatening an election over a private member's bill on RESPs, and a nasty slagging match with Ontario's premier Dalton McGuinty. Flaherty is a tough enforcer and a top player on a political team reflecting the Prime Minister's obsession with hockey and aggressive politics.

"There is a distinct confrontational edge to Flaherty," says Graham Murray of G.P. Murray Research Limited, publisher of Inside Queen's Park. "He has been described to me by lawyers who worked in the insurance litigation field in which he was a leading practitioner, as pugnacious and more than a little stiff-necked. He sees himself as a principled man, in politics and other fields. And he brought his neo-con convictions to elective politics in 1990, when he ran unsuccessfully... I think he is one of nature's hard-liners who is staking out his ground because he believes that his answers are the right ones – and also because he delights in controversy."

Flaherty was first elected to provincial politics in the 1995 Mike Harris Conservative sweep of Ontario and was made labour minister in 1997. In Harris' Cabinet, he became identified as one of the hawks in Harris' so-called "Common Sense Revolution". He advocated the forcible removal of the homeless from the streets and proposed a crackdown on squeegee people.

Murray says "People should understand that Flaherty is a highly intelligent and altogether lively fellow with a good sense of humour, at variance with the image someone once summed up by describing him as a 'short, angry right-wing man'. I actually like the man and enjoy his company. But I should not imply that he isn't right-wing. He does believe strongly in the key precepts of the Common Sense Revolution: tax cuts create jobs; business is unduly burdened by red-tape, one-size-fits-all regulations; and, government should be reduced in scale and cost."

Prominent among his causes was tax credits for those who send their children to private and religious schools despite his own party's opposition to it. According to Toronto Star columnist Ian Urquhardt, [Ontario Conservative leader] John Tory's promoting faith-based schools, to disastrous effect in the 2007 provincial election, was due to pressure from Flaherty.

"I don't see him as specially close to Harris," recalls Murray, "but he certainly was, from the get-go, a militant caucus supporter, always ready to chivvy red Tories to get with the program or to plunge into disputing opposition contentions. He later became a leader of the party's neo-con wing and emerged as a leadership contender."

When he left office after serving as Harris' finance officer, Flaherty left Ontario with a deficit of $6 billion despite several economic boom years. Somehow, possibly due to his affable personal style, he receives little blame for Ontario's current economic problems. (Along with Tony Clement and John Baird, Flaherty is one of three former Harris cabinet members among Harper's ministers.)

Now that he is exchanging barbs with the Ontario premier, Murray says Flaherty is on comfortable ground. He "likes to whack Grits, so there is not much that is contrived about his pushing lower corporate taxes. He's not a great admirer of his provincial counterpart, and I think that he supposes their current spat over taxes and public statements suggests that the current premier is 'just not up to the job'. Of course, the criticism of Ontario as a jurisdiction in which to invest has allowed McGuinty to hit back with the complaint that the federal finance minister is failing to serve the interests of the province in which he is elected."

Murray says Flaherty has risen in status among the former Harrisites in Harper's cabinet. "Flaherty's performance as finance minister has been sufficiently strong and nearly stumble-free. As a result he has increased his standing, especially relative to Clement or to Baird, whose gusto has sometimes been regarded as over the top." Murray says, with irony, that Harper may feel Clement has "suspicious lefty ties" such as seeking the endorsement of Bill Davis, whose riding he represented.

Harper Conservative vs. Public Values Frame
  Tax cuts / Wrecking public services
  Responsible / Dangerous idealogue
  Prestigous / Tarnished record
  Balanced fiscal plan / Left Ontario with $6 billion deficit

Posted: March 12, 2008

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