Jim Flaherty: ’Do it for your country’

Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty debates the federal budget in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 21, 2013. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS) - RTR3FALA

The prepared text of a speech—an interesting, perhaps even charming, and apparently quite personal speech—delivered today by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to students at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business.

I am happy to be here. This is a room full of important people. You are the people our country needs in the highly competitive and challenging global marketplace of today and tomorrow.

Our future success depends on you.

You are the leaders of tomorrow.

I want to talk about tomorrow. But first I want to spend a few moments on yesterday.

I was raised in a household of eight children. Needless to say, my mother kept the house in order and ruled the roost.

My mother believed firmly in the benefits of cod liver oil for the treatment of various maladies, in fact, most maladies. It tasted awful. So, my seven brothers and sisters and I would resist at first. We would relent in the end for two reasons: it was actually good for us and, perhaps more importantly, mother was not to be disobeyed.

I am not your mother. I don’t have to be obeyed. But today I am here to urge you to consider something that will be good for you. I want you to consider public service as part of your career path. I recommend it, knowing from experience that public service will not be easy to take at times but it will be good for you in the end result. I can offer no greater assurance.

After taking the good advice of my mother, I eventually graduated high school and moved from home. I was fortunate to take  my undergraduate degree at Princeton University. During that time, it was my privilege to attend a speech delivered by Robert Kennedy. His message to my own generation was crystal clear: “I need you. Your country needs you. The world needs you. You are the best and brightest of your generation.”

Today, about 40 years after I heard Kennedy speak, my message is the same: Canada needs you – your skills, talents, idealism, energy and enthusiasm.

Now, more than ever.

At the same time, you need Canada.

Because, as I can tell you, public service is good for you. It will give perspective to your life by expanding your horizons, your thoughts, and your view of the world. You will learn that some issues and concerns are more important than others. This leads to discernment as choices must be made. This perspective will be useful in all aspects of your life.

Public service reminds us all that there exists a genuine concept of the public good in the broad public interest. While we value individual liberty and protect it, as Canadians we also maintain a strong tradition of the public good, that is, what is good for society as a whole, on balance, taking into account disparate interests and adopting the longer view. In public service you will participate in advancing this public good.

Public service is good for you. It will give your life a greater impact on others and your country. My high school, Loyola High School in Montreal, has its motto: “a man for others” (It’s an all boys school). My alma mater maintains its motto of “Princeton in the nation’s service”. Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton before becoming President of the United States, had this to say in 1916 to the graduates of the U.S Naval Academy:

“I congratulate you that you are going to live your lives under the most stimulating compulsion that any man can feel, the sense, not of private duty merely, but of public duty also. And then if you perform that duty, there is a reward awaiting you which is superior to any other reward in this world. That is the affectionate remembrance of your fellow men – their honour, their affection.”

In many ways ranging from individual matters to community concerns to national and global issues, the opportunities to be a positive force for others in public service are both plentiful and fulfilling.

That will make you happier ultimately. We are, of course, not in the world alone and our lives here are finite. People seek to have an impact on broader public issues recognizing the intrinsic value of reaching out to others not only to maintain and reinforce shared common values, but also to create new initiatives and innovations. This societal public good is not incompatible with the private good. Our individual and family responsibilities are primary. Yet the desire to accumulate private goods in the end does not lead to satisfaction simply because, as we all learn, enough is never enough. On that train, some people will always be in the cars ahead.

If money was all that mattered to me, I would still be working as a lawyer in downtown Toronto. Because I can tell you, I would be making a lot more money than I am now. But I would have missed out on so many experiences that have enriched my life. And I would have missed out on so many opportunities to shape and implement public policies that, in my opinion, have enriched others’ lives and made our communities and country stronger.

Public service is good for you. You will have opportunities to change the world around you in varying ways and to different degrees, large and small.

You will get opportunities and to use your talents to implement your thoughts and beliefs. In concert with others, accomplishments will follow. Great adventure this, for disappointments and failure will follow also. Boredom, however, is not on the agenda.

One little anecdote. One of the most testing times in my career in public service was the recession that began in the Fall of 2008.

In fact, we were in the midst of an election when it hit with full force. Had we been aware of the crisis on the horizon, the Prime Minister would have been unlikely to call the election.

Nevertheless, that was the situation. So I found myself campaigning for re-election in Whitby-Oshawa while juggling an increasing number of phone calls with the G7 finance ministers as we all became more aware of the breadth of the worldwide economic crisis.

One of the most surreal moments was Election Day itself. I was doing what we call in politics a Burmashave where you stand by the road and wave at passing motorists. While I don’t know if this technique actually gets you votes, I do know that it keeps nervous candidates busy and not bothering their campaign team, the ones doing the real work.

At one point that morning I had to run down from the side of the road into the Whitby Brick parking lot and get on my cell phone to discuss the latest twists in the crisis with the American Secretary of the Treasury and my other G7 colleagues.

When I was your age, had anyone ever told me I’d one day be speaking to an American cabinet officer and Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer while in a department store parking lot, I would have questioned their sanity.

But this is what could await you. In this room it’s conceivable that we could have future mayors, future Deputy Ministers, Chairs of School Boards, a Minister of Foreign Affairs, or perhaps even a future Prime Minister.

In order for this to happen, however, you have to answer the call – the call like the one I heard Bobby Kennedy make so many years ago. Being involved in public service is an honour for me. I know that all MPs of all parties in the House of Commons, and members of the non-partisan public service at all levels, feel the same way.

Public service is good for you. It’s unlike any other career. It features long hours, relatively lower rates of pay than comparable positions on Bay Street, and it is often decades before you can witness the positive results of your labour.

Some of you might then ask: “If the hours are long and the pay low, why would I do it?”

The answer is simple: It is the most satisfying and personally enriching career you will ever find. This, my friends, is priceless.

Your parents will definitely remember Bill Davis. Mr. Davis served as Premier of Ontario from 1971 to 1985. Quite rightly, politicians and commentators of all political persuasions consider him one of the great Ontario Premiers of the 20th century.

After his retirement from politics, Mr. Davis, a lawyer by profession, was offered a position at one of Toronto’s leading law firms. The job finally allowed him to realize a salary equal to what his fellow law school graduates had been making for years, while he worked at Queen’s Park as a young backbencher, cabinet minister and later Premier and party leader. The new job also came with an impressive office and fine view of Toronto’s downtown – much better, I might add, than the view from the Premier’s Office at the Ontario Legislature.

Two-years after accepting this position – which he excelled at – Mr. Davis was interviewed by Steve Paikin of TV Ontario.

“Steven, let me tell you something,” the former Premier said, “This job– on the most exciting, interesting day– can’t touch being Premier of Ontario on the dullest.”

So I return to my theme.

Public service is good for you. It will develop your character as you will need courage to act on crucial issues while rejecting the venality and self-interest that frequent public affairs. Character requires, purposefulness, steadfastness and, as Sir John A. McDonald was fond of saying, “looking a little ahead, my friends”. Character contrasts with short term celebrity witnessing, as we do, the tendency of celebrities to under achieve in public service and to fail to stay the course.

Anyone in this profession will tell you that working in the public sector is more than simply coming in every day and finishing a series of tasks.

Rather, public service is a higher calling, one which can result in long days and little sleep, but rewards you with the knowledge that rather than working for the interests of a company, or a corporation, you work in the interest of every single citizen within this great country.

It is something that makes me truly happy.  But it’s important to know why this, more than any other career I’ve had makes me happy.

I don’t mean to say that I’m “happy” because this job is easy, it doesn’t make me happy because I get to meet so-called important people, it doesn’t make me happy because I get to see my name in the newspaper, or my face on TV. No… it makes me happy because I know that making the decision to enter public service was right.

I know that it is right to want to serve your country. That it is right to want to help your fellow citizen. That it is right to want to work for a better, stronger, and more robust country. That it is right to say “we can do better”. And that it is right to stand up and be there for Canada.

It is good for me. And it will be good for you. You will be challenged in many dimensions. Your heart and mind will be engaged on public issues for the public good.

Public service will enrich your skills and your resumes  — even if you don’t decide to work your whole careers in the public sector. Public service offers valuable training opportunities such as the chance to interact with Canadians across Canada or to perform high-tech research alongside the top scientists in Canada. These are skills and experiences in wide demand in the private sector as well.

Now, politics in the sense of standing for or holding public office, is a form of public service but only one form.

There are many others:

  • Community groups such as local chambers of commerce or environmental organizations
  • Local service organizations like the Lions Club or the Knights of Columbus
  • Charitable organizations like the Red Cross,
  • Cultural entities like the local library or heritage association
  • The civil service
  • School boards, church groups, and local minor sports organizations.

My choice, in recent years, has been public office. So I will return to that. Oftentimes, the public perception of those who seek or obtain elected office is jaded.

Some of this pessimism is earned: the world of politics, like other occupations, does not exclude the self-absorbed or the narrow minded.

While there are necessary yet at least temporarily unpopular decisions taken from time to time by governments, and certainly there are some disappointing elected persons, the public good in my view would be served better if all of us in all walks of life sought more balance in our perspectives.

That is, the balance that comes with the acceptance of the realization that we are all in this together seeking the public good and that, with the exception of some scoundrels to be found in all walks of life, including politics, we share that goal. So, the paramount question for all of us, including the media, remains: What is the public good for the country?

Almost 100 years ago, one of Canada’s greatest Prime Ministers, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, addressed a group of Ontario youth. It was less than a month before his death in February 1919.

He admitted that his generation had not solved all of Canada’s problems and was leaving much unfinished in their wake. Through public service, Laurier said, Canada’s young people would have to face these challenges themselves. And to do so, he left them the following words of advice.

“Let your aim and purpose, in good report or ill, in victory or defeat, be so to live, so to strive, so to serve as to do your part to raise even higher the standard of life and living.”

Just as in Laurier’s time, my generation doesn’t have all the answers. We have done the best we can. The levers of decision making will soon be in your hands. It matters little to me if you are, or end up, a Conservative, Liberal, NDP or Green party supporter. (Although I hope you find conservative principles engaging.) What matters most is when you walk out of this institution on graduation day you get engaged in your community, province and country.

Because your country is a land of opportunity for public service in these challenging times. Canada is looked to as an example of a country that worked during the recent global economic crisis and that has a plan to ensure the country continues to work into the future. Being part of shaping that future will be an amazing, enriching experience for any of you who choose it. Your country needs you. But it also has much to offer you.

So, one more time I will say: Public service is good for you. You may have noticed that I have not said public service is your duty or obligation. Whether it is or it isn’t – the choice is yours. I do recommend it as part of your career because public service will make your life exhilarating and satisfying for, among other things, the reasons I have stated. So, in your life plan as you consider your priorities and define your thoughts, create space for the fascinating world of public service.

I can promise you that if you do, you will be rewarded in ways no other calling grants you. You will become, as Theodore Roosevelt once said after his retirement from politics, one of those who, and I quote: “knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

That is the challenge I leave you with.

Answer the call.

You will never regret it.

Do it for your country.

Do it for yourself.

Do it to make your mother proud.

The cod liver oil is optional.

Thank you for inviting me here today.