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Jim Flaherty and the price of political success

In October 1997, shortly after Ontario Premier Mike Harris gave Jim Flaherty his very first cabinet post, the rookie rose in the Legislative Assembly to make his maiden statement as minister of labour.

"The Minister should resign!" an NDP backbencher yelled, to general laughter, before he got a word out. It's been one thing after another ever since.

Contrary to popular belief, most journalists don't like writing about the private lives of politicians. It's none of our business, or yours. We have covered some of these people for decades, and it is human nature not to want to embarrass them.

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But sometimes, personal concerns become public concerns. The current Conservative cabinet has been plagued with health issues. Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield had to step down for a few months after a heart attack. (He's back now.) Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver had heart bypass surgery earlier this month, but has stayed at his post during his recovery.

People have been whispering for some time that Mr. Flaherty did not look well, that he appeared to have gained weight. There were off-the-record reports that he was sometimes unfocused or testy at meetings.

As Steven Chase and Bill Curry report here, the Minister decided the time had come to lay the rumours to rest. He has been taking prednisone to battle a skin condition, and experiencing the side effects that are common with that potent drug.

Mr. Flaherty has every reason to expect that the skin condition will improve, in which case things will return to normal. In the meantime, he continues to prepare the budget.

We don't say it enough, because so many readers are deeply skeptical of the claim, but politicians have incredibly difficult jobs. They work brutal hours for relatively little pay. They commute, in some cases, from the far ends of the country to the capital every week. (For Mr. Flaherty, it's a four-hour train ride from Oshawa, Ont., to Ottawa; I watched him once as he tried to read briefing papers while also answering the friendly but incessant questions of the stranger seated next to him.)

There is the business of the House, the constituency work, the myriad evening and weekend events one is expected to attend. And every four years or less you have to fight like hell not to be fired.

Sometimes the marriage fails. Sometimes they drink too much. Sometimes work makes them sick. Mr. Flaherty's skin condition can be caused by stress.

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But he loves the life. He rose from the backbench to minister of finance under Mr. Harris, and was clearly thrilled to have the job. He experienced the exhilaration and humiliation of running for party leader and losing – twice. From finance minister to failed leadership contender to opposition critic is no fun at all.

He found political rebirth in the new federal Conservative Party, where he is now one of Canada's longest-serving finance ministers.

Some of us believe his ambition was to become the first truly great Conservative finance minister, the one who reshaped government in his party's image.

But his efforts to permanently reduce the size of the state and set the debt on the path to elimination were undermined by minority governments, a lack of political will, and the great recession.

Still, if the budget is actually balanced by the time he leaves, it will be an accomplishment few of his colleagues in the developed world can match.

But success in politics comes with a price. And now we know a bit of the price Jim Flaherty has paid.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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