Jim Flaherty was promising improvements to a federal disability savings plan that helps parents of special needs children when the tears started welling behind his glasses, a few drops at first, then more and more until the nation’s finance minister was openly sobbing on live television.
“The politician lost to the parent on that one,” he later told a friend.
Thursday, it was his critics’ turn to cry.
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One after another, opposition MPs who have made a career of publicly savaging Flaherty across the floor of the Commons were dissolving in tearful grief over the sudden death of a man they now call a friend.
It was an extraordinary sight rarely seen in Canadian politics, MPs of all political stripes clearly mourning more than the loss of a fellow parliamentarian.
In Jim Flaherty, their loss seemed deeply personal.
NDP leader Tom Mulcair completely choked up when he got to the words: “He was a good person.”
NDP MP Charlie Angus, a well-known Commons scrapper, started to tell a story about Flaherty, but fell apart in tears before he could finish.
Liberal finance critic Ralph Goodale said Flaherty had the extraordinary ability to get into a no-holds-barred donnybrook in Parliament “but somehow managed to leave you more chuckling than angry.”
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said tearfully: “I disagreed with his policies, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t very, very fond of him.”
One of Flaherty’s long-time loyal aides, Chisholm Pothier, says in many ways the affable former finance minister was “an old-style politician,” a throwback to the days when MPs could be foes in the Commons and still be friends at the bar.
Pothier says Flaherty wouldn’t hesitate to invite one of the opposition finance critics out for a drink. He liked most of them. And they liked him.
Flaherty wore a 'mischievous Irish smile'
Unfortunately, for those who long for kinder, gentler politics in this country, Flaherty was a rarity.
The second most powerful player in a Conservative government known for nasty, somehow the minister with the mischievous Irish smile managed to stay above the mud-slinging and vicious personal attacks.
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In some ways, Flaherty was an enigma.
The Conservative finance minister who took a sharp axe to Big Government, a hard line on balancing budgets, and was generally seen as a tough right-winger — turns out he was also a strong voice in cabinet for social policy activism to help the disadvantaged, and especially the disabled.
His sudden crying spell in the midst of his 2011 disability savings plan announcement was more than just parent over politician, as he put it. One of Flaherty’s sons has a learning disability, and friends say that had a major influence on the former finance minister.
Indeed, in every one of his federal budgets over the past eight years, Flaherty ensured there were new measures to help disabled and otherwise disadvantaged Canadians and their families.
Similarly, Flaherty’s hero wasn’t Margaret Thatcher or some other world icon of the right.
It was an iconic leftie named Bobby Kennedy, whom Flaherty liked to quote, saying: “Most of our fellow citizens do their best — and do it the modest, unspectacular, decent, natural way which is the highest form of public service.”
Flaherty urged students to consider public service
Flaherty claimed he was inspired to pursue a life in politics by a speech the famous Kennedy brother gave at Princeton while he was U.S. attorney general and Canada’s future finance minister was still a student there in the 1960s.
'Public service is good for you.' - Jim Flaherty, speaking to a group of Western University business students
The speech was all about the need for the best and brightest to be involved in public service.
Decades later, Flaherty gave a similar address to business students at Western University, extolling the virtues of public service.
“Public service is good for you,” he told them. “It’s unlike any other career. It features long hours, relatively lower rates of pay than comparable positions on Bay Street, and it is often decades before you can witness the positive results of your labour.
“It is the most satisfying and personally enriching career you will ever find.
“This, my friends, is priceless.”
Judging from the tears and tributes, many would say the same of Jim Flaherty’s near lifetime of public service.