Ford scandal drags Flaherty into mess

In politics, if your ally is on fire, you run.

In politics, if your ally is on fire, you run.

You don’t look back, you don’t offer a bucket of water. You just sprint the other way.

But one federal Conservative ran back to the burning house known as Rob Ford.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, a longtime Ford family friend, is the only one to figuratively touch what has become the third rail of Canadian politics, a mayor or Toronto councillor named Ford.

Or so it would seem, according to the Fords.

In an interview on Monday evening with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, Rob, with the ubiquitous Doug Ford at his side, acknowledged that in his chaotic race to the bottom, he has not received a call from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or provincial Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, or a single federal cabinet minister. Except one.

Jim Flaherty? Asked Mansbridge.

“Yes, he has,” said Rob Ford.

Flaherty would not be interviewed for this column. But his office, while agreeing the minister and the disgraced mayor are close and have spoken, said Flaherty has not called Ford in the past couple of weeks.

Flaherty is clearly concerned about his family friend and it is laudable that he has transcended politics to deal with this matter on a human scale.

But Flaherty doesn’t need to be the source of Ford’s “come to Jesus” moment. The finance minister’s emotional response to a question regarding Ford (the only such question he has taken) was the turning point on the road to permanent abstinence, Ford said, a contention he repeated Tuesday.

On a day when Employment Minister Jason Kenney became the first Harper cabinet minister to call for Ford’s resignation, Flaherty couldn’t have been happy about being dragged back into the middle of this.

The Fords may have felt they were praising a friend, but Flaherty didn’t need the national reminder that he, more than any other Conservative in the country, was responsible for foisting the two-headed Ford monster on Toronto, counting on their low-tax, look-out-for-the-little-guy, outsider-fighting-the-evil-elite mantra to plow through the suburban ridings that Harper needed to craft his 2011 majority.

On Nov. 7, Flaherty emotionally fumbled to find the words, before saying “at the end of the day he (Ford) has to make his own decision about what he ought to do.”

That “ripped my heart out,” Rob Ford said.

“(Rob) called me after he saw Jim and said, ‘I am changing my life,’ ” Doug Ford said. “This is a man who went out there for us and supported us.’’

Doug Ford then reminded us it was Flaherty who backed their decision to run, stood with them when they were largely ignored and stayed with them throughout.

“When we ran, only Jim Flaherty stood up,” Doug Ford said.

Not a single other Conservative, Liberal or New Democrat would go anywhere near the Fords, he said.

“I’m sure he was mocked behind the scenes, but Jim Flaherty believed in us.”

Flaherty didn’t need such a testimonial because it merely calls his political judgment into question.

This is the flip side of Toronto’s political debacle. One cannot know how badly let down Flaherty feels by the two men he helped mentor, but he is a man who does not seem happy with his lot in life of late.

He is, of course, facing his own health challenges.

He has watched as first the Senate spending scandal, then the Fords, overshadowed what he certainly saw as important news to sell: a tentative trade deal with the European Union and then a projected budgetary surplus of $3.7 billion in 2015-16 following seven years of deficits.

In frustration, he broke with the official party line in late October and called for the abolition of the Senate.

He has kept his counsel, with the one exception, on the Fords.

He spent much of last spring and summer fighting off rumours he was going to leave Finance. Then, when he didn’t move, he started to fight off rumours that he will not run again.

Flaherty had always pledged he would remain in his job until he balanced the budget.

Now that he is projecting an election-year surplus, he could turn out the lights for the last time, proudly proclaiming he met his goal.

If it comes to that, one will always wonder how much the fall of the Fords took out of the core of Jim Flaherty.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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