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04/14/2014 12:29 EDT | Updated 06/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Jim Flaherty: A Tough Fiscal Conservative With a Big Heart

When destiny called, Flaherty responded with calm determination, incredible single-mindedness, supreme confidence, toughness and above all, clear-eyed pragmatism. And in the process, he even surprised his most critical political foes with his smooth Gretzky-like stick handling of Canada's economy.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
James 'Jim' Flaherty, Canada's finance minister, smiles while speaking during a press conference after releasing the 2014 Federal Budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. Flaherty ramped up efforts to return the country to surplus in a budget that raises taxes on cigarettes and cuts benefits to retired government workers while providing more aid for carmakers. Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Jim Flaherty, at 5'3" was a towering figure both at home and abroad.

Perhaps Flaherty's greatest success was charting and sailing Canada safely through one of the most dangerous recessions in modern times: The recession of 2008.

When destiny called, Flaherty responded with calm determination, incredible single-mindedness, supreme confidence, toughness and above all, clear-eyed pragmatism. And in the process, he even surprised his most critical political foes with his smooth Gretzky-like stick handling of Canada's economy.

Flaherty was born and bred for this career-defining role.

Flaherty was one of eight children from an Irish Catholic home raised in the tough blue collar community of Lachine, in southwestern Montreal.

Flaherty was no trust fund kid. If he wanted a new pair of skates, he had to earn it himself.

I never saw Flaherty play hockey at Bishop Whelan High School or Loyola College.

But my Westmount friends used to play competitive hockey against the tough Irish boys from Lachine.

Even in those days, Flaherty was known as a very scrappy but skillful player, with steel cojones.

He was fearless.

He was the Irish Pocket Rocket, who split the defense and always beat you up in the corner for the puck.

The test of a true Montreal-born hockey player.

And then Flaherty made the leap from the mean streets of Lachine to the ivy-covered walls of Princeton as a true scholar-athlete.

Then an Osgoode Hall law grad, then founder and partner of his own thriving law practice.

Then a leap into provincial politics with the Mike Harris government and the Common Sense Revolution.

At that time, Ontario was reeling from the profligate Peterson Liberals and the tax and spendthrift NDP Rae. (Much like today's Ontario, under the deficit-loving Wynne.)

Then, (as now) Ontario was on the verge of pulling a "Greece" (and I'm not talking about the Travolta/Newton-John musical).

Ontario was hitting a debt wall. Lenders were threatening to pull the plug. Government spending was out of control. Deficits were soaring.

Harris won an overall majority to stop the economic insanity. Together Harris and Flaherty, as his finance minister, took an ax to Ontario's bloated and unaffordable health/education/welfare system.

As a result, Flaherty, a true hard-nosed fiscal conservative, was responsible for the closing of hospitals, schools, and removing thousands from welfare.

Teachers and nurses rebelled. The public railed against the slash and burn Flaherty. But Flaherty stood firm and tall against the slings and arrows of liberal/leftist arrogance and myopia.

Flaherty took no joy in shutting down hospital beds, turfing nurses or expelling teachers. But the sorry state of Ontario needed radical surgery, and Flaherty was the man. The patient was saved.

But Flaherty was tarred with the rep of being a cold-hearted Harrisite.

Even by his fellow provincial Tories, who preferred the Tory-lite Ernie Eves and John Tory as their leaders, as opposed to the far more competent Flaherty.

How did that work out, by the way?

I am sure Flaherty identified with Oscar Wilde's classic aphorism, "no good deed goes unpunished."

Fortunately for Canada, Flaherty did not flee to the private sector, after his two leadership defeats.

Harper and the federal Conservatives needed someone of Flaherty's experience and stature to guide Canada's financial ship.

Once again, Flaherty "manned up" and responded to the call for public service.

The American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that, "there are no second acts in American lives."

Clearly, Fitzgerald had never met the feisty Flaherty, who in his third act, became Stephen Harper's finance minister.

Together Harper and Flaherty, formed the dynamic duo of tough fiscal conservatism.

With Harper by his side, Flaherty attempted to reduce the size of the federal government by reducing the GST (from 7 to 5 per cent). He reduced corporate taxes (from 22 to 15 per cent). His overall goal was balanced budgets and stable and sustainable growth. While finance minister, Canada's economy did outperform the average of the G7 major industrialized countries every year but one.

But in 2008, when Canada and the world's economies were faced with a potentially catastrophic financial melt down, Flaherty showed Canadians and the world that he was no ideological hard-ass.

Contrary to his own principles and hard right fiscal Conservative orthodoxy, Flaherty threw out the deficit-cutting playbook. Instead, Flaherty pumped $40 billion worth of stimulus in the ailing Canadian economy. He bailed out the auto sector, saving thousands of jobs.

When the credit markets seized up, Flaherty pro-actively intervened in the capital markets and had the federal government buy up billions of dollars of CMHC-insured pooled mortgages,which kept liquidity in the system and sustained both lending and borrowing.

In order to keep the Canadian economy afloat during this period of private sector panic, Flaherty engaged in deficit-financing budgets, which added about $162 billion to the total federal debt.

However, in the last five years, Flaherty determinedly returned Canada to annual balanced budgets.

Also in the early days of the 2008 international financial crisis Flaherty showed decisive leadership. He was credited with convincing his fellow finance ministers to enact a concrete five-point plan, which calmed the global markets. As a result, Canada and the world avoided a calamitous financial breakdown.

For me, Jim Flaherty exemplified the rare fiscal conservative who was also truly compassionate. Flaherty will also be remembered for creating the registered disability savings plan, which was designed to meet the needs of people with physical, developmental and psychiatric disabilities. He was an active supporter of the Special Olympics. But more importantly, Flaherty used his political clout to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace and in other aspects of everyday life.

Jim, we salute you.

We salute you for your tremendous personal sacrifice, your service to Canada, your humility, your strength of character and above all, your work on behalf of the vulnerable in society.

We you wish all the best, in this, your final act.

Skate free, skate hard, and forever, skate long.

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