WASHINGTON—The elite of global finance paused during a gathering to pay tribute to one of their peers, former finance minister Jim Flaherty, upon learning of his death from a heart attack Thursday.
The sudden loss of Canada’s rock star finance policy guru shocked longtime colleagues at the G20’s spring meeting—the first time in nearly a decade such an event was attended by a Canadian finance minister other than Flaherty.
It was under a cloud of tragedy that the new minister entered the club.
Joe Oliver said his predecessor would be remembered as a great Canadian statesman for his influence on policy, and also for his role among decision-makers who steered the world through the post-2007 financial crisis.
“I also want to say how much I appreciated Jim’s personal kindness and assistance when I was a candidate, and later a cabinet colleague,” Oliver said during a round of tributes, as G20 ministers and central bankers gathered for a working supper.
“This was who he was—a kind and generous man—and why he was so admired and held in such affection by so many people. I’m sure all Canadians, and many others, will join me in offering my deepest condolences to his wife, Christine Elliott, and his sons, John, Galen and Quinn.”
The remarks from Britain’s well-known central banker Mark Carney struck a particularly personal note. He pointed out that he’d collaborated with Flaherty through a turbulent era, when Carney headed the Bank of Canada.
“I had the great privilege of working closely with Jim Flaherty for the past decade, in good times and in bad,” Carney said.
“Much of what he contributed turned the bad times back to good. He had an enormous influence around this table—on global policy, he had a direct influence on Canadian prosperity, and he had an enormous influence on me, personally, and I will miss him tremendously.”
In a rare move, the G20 dinner was opened to droves of international media so they could record the pre-meal tributes.
Britain’s central banker delivered his remarks in both of Canada’s official languages, as did Oliver. Carney said Flaherty played a major role around that same table in 2008 as the G20 was revitalized as an institution.
Flaherty himself has since reminisced about that pivotal 2008 meeting in Washington, held as the global economy was disintegrating. A Canadian election campaign was also just a few days away, making it awkward for the government to make major policy decisions.
But he said the crisis required some high-stakes improvisation.
“The practice in international fora is for public servants to prepare communiques before the meetings. This time we acted differently,” Flaherty told a Washington think-tank three years later, in 2011.
“We agreed around the room that we would tear up the communique, and that we needed a one-page document, something that would help restore confidence. We came up with a five-point plan on one piece of paper, which the G7 people around the table all endorsed. And fundamentally, the conclusion was that we would not allow any more systemically important financial institutions to fail.”
Flaherty was the longest-serving finance minister in the G7 when he stepped down last month. That, combined with Canada’s better-than-average position during the crisis, raised his and Carney’s international profile considerably.
Carney made reference to Flaherty’s famous pugnacious streak and his preference for conservative monetary policy.
“He led, he cajoled, he urged members around the table to pursue the right policies in order to really deliver strong, sustainable and balanced growth and he wouldn’t settle for anything less,” Carney said.
“He believed in fixing the banks. He believed in sound money… And (he was) a strong believer in balanced budgets.”
Carney added in French: He gave more than he took, and won more often than he lost.
The head of the International Monetary Fund, the French finance minister, and other colleagues also shared their memories of Flaherty at other venues Thursday.
As for the supper, it began with a few words from the treasurer of Australia, which is chairing this year’s G20.
“The most generous thing you can say about a person in Australia is that they’ve been a very decent human being,” Joe Hockey said, as he opened the working dinner.
“Jim Flaherty was a very decent human being. He is someone who was heartfelt in his determination to deliver to the people of Canada… Just a few months ago he reflected on the fact that he wanted to see a better world left to his three children…
“Canada is poorer—we are all poorer—for the passing of Jim. He only recently retired and he so thoroughly deserved the opportunity to spend more time with his previous family. Sadly, that’s not going to happen.”
With that, he expressed sadness that Canada’s new finance minister was joining the group under such somber circumstances.
And he turned the microphone over to Oliver.