(EDITOR’S WARNING: If you are a federal Conservative, this column may make you faint. You are advised to immediately locate the smelling salts and lay down on the couch before proceeding any further.)
Yes, folks, it’s true: I am about to say something nice about Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. Me, the resident Bolshevik at Sun Media. Me, the guy who never met a Conservative he didn’t like.
Here goes: Over the past few days, in which economic turmoil has left quite a few of us feeling exceedingly nervous, Jim Flaherty has been doing a not-bad job. A good job, even.
There, I said it.
In the wake of Standard and Poor’s idiotic downgrade of the credit of rating of the United States — and in the wake of the ongoing debt crisis unfolding across the European Union — Flaherty has been a voice of calm and rationality. Through it all, the Lilliputian finance minister has done what he should have done — he reminded everyone our economic fundamentals are rock-solid. Our banking system is secure. Our lending practices are sane. Our economy is turning the corner. And, unlike the U.S. of A., we still have a triple “A” credit rating. We are in good shape.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Flaherty isn’t perfect. Economic historians will forever remember him as the minister who took a structural fiscal surplus, left to him by the governments of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, and turned it into a structural deficit. He will always be remembered as the politician who, circa 2008, arrogantly dismissed those who suggested (a) a recession was imminent and (b) it would hammer Canada. For those two blunders alone, Flaherty deserves criticism aplenty.
But, throughout the recent spate of troubles, it can’t be denied: Flaherty has been conducting our economic affairs with a certain degree of skill. And that is why you haven’t seen the opposition New Democrats or Liberals howling for his impressively sized head. They know Canada is a middling power, at best, with little or no ability to affect the currents and eddies of international markets. Few pay us any heed.
So a Canadian finance minister must always been a shrewd manager of words, as well as dollars. And that is why Flaherty has been focused — like his capable provincial counterparts in Ontario, Quebec and B.C. — on assuring citizens that, while we are not immune from the world’s economic ills, we are also in comparatively good economic shape. That has been his job, and he has been fine with it.
But big, big challenges lie ahead. If the European contagion spreads, as some expect — and if presidential-year political gamesmanship continues to hurt prospects for a rebound in the U.S. — then Canada, too, is facing another 2008-style recession. And maybe worse.
For Jim Flaherty, that would present a formidable dilemma.
Flaherty and his boss, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have insisted it is imperative we pay down the whopping deficit that grew (necessarily) out of post-recession stimulus spending. Both men have been resolute in saying economic stimulus is at an end, and we must all begin to tighten our belts. Both men gave every impression government cutbacks, and program cuts, were inevitable.
But what if we are heading back in downward spiral, towards a recession that would be far, far worse than 2008? And rest assured, it would be worse. So is it advisable to start cutting back on the very programs which help Canadians in tough times and, even worse, to start talking about cutting taxes for the very big businesses which got us all into this protracted mess in the first place?
Jim Flaherty did well this week. But Jim Flaherty’s mettle is still to be tested in the weeks ahead.
It is in all of our interest he keeps doing his job well.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Conservatives should remain rested and not operate heavy machinery after reading this column.)