The meaning of death

The recent deaths of Jim Flaherty and Herb Gray tell us something about the state of politics in this country. Flaherty was unique in the Stephen Harper cabinet. He was someone who cared about his role as finance minister, gave his all, and didn’t take himself too seriously. When I look at the rest of the cabinet, I don’t see very many others with Flaherty’s breadth or gravitas.

In the 1970s, when I was working in Ottawa and saw Herb Gray up close, he was a study in contrasts. By all boring appearances he was the least interesting member of the Pierre Trudeau cabinet, but the closer you looked the more there was to see. As the longest serving MP of the modern era, Gray was more than just durable. He cared about important issues from social justice to foreign ownership and worked diligently to achieve his goals.

The difference between Flaherty and Gray is that Flaherty had few peers in his midst who were his equal; Gray was just one of the many minds in his cabinet with political courage. I’ve just finished helping Donald Macdonald with his memoirs, titled Thumper, to be published this fall by McGill-Queen’s University Press, so I’m reminded of the depth of the front benches in those days. As house leader, Macdonald pushed through new rules; in national defence he oversaw troops during the War Measures Act; at energy he represented consumers against the demand for world prices by Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed; as minister of finance he tackled inflation with wage and price controls.

But other Liberal ministers were adept, too. Marc Lalonde on social programs, Don Jamieson in external affairs, Allan MacEachen on just about anything, even Eugene Whelan on agriculture. And there were individuals, such as Eric Kierans, who stood steadfast and alone for their beliefs. Even as someone who worked for the other side, Opposition Leader Robert Stanfield, I think it is fair to say that the Trudeau cabinet was the best of the modern era. Trudeau was a strong leader, but he permitted everyone to have their say, particularly on a topic about which he was not well informed. My sense of Stephen Harper is very different. I wonder how much thoughtful debate there is when his cabinet meets.

The death of Herb Gray reminds us not just to mourn the man but a way of life that has been lost. Today’s cabinet, minus Jim Flaherty, doesn’t have the personal heft or professional depth that once was commonplace.

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