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Andrew Cohen: Shrugs meet Flaherty’s call to public service

Since his death, we have heard much about former finance minister Jim Flaherty — his decency, his gentility, his Irishness. We have also heard about his spirited commitment to public service.

Since his death, we have heard much about former finance minister Jim Flaherty — his decency, his gentility, his Irishness. We have also heard about his spirited commitment to public service.

He spoke of it memorably in a speech at the University of Western Ontario on Oct. 11, 2011, where he urged future graduates to consider careers in something other than business. He told them they should use their talents not just for themselves, but for their country.

“Public service is good for you,” he said, a phrase he repeated several times that day. “It will give perspective to your life by expanding your horizons, your thoughts and your view of the world.”

He saw public service fundamentally as a commitment to the public good. We value individual liberty in Canada, he noted, but we value more what is good for society as a whole. It is why we have universal health care, for example, or public broadcasting.

“It is the most satisfying and personally enriching career you will ever find,” he declared. “This, my friends, is priceless.”

It may be years before you see the results of your labour, he warned. The days are long and the pay modest. He chose public service because, he said, “it makes me truly happy.”

What gives his speech power, then and now, is that its appeal is unique, even subversive. In Canada, the idea of public service is passé, even rejected.

Two years ago, I tested Flaherty’s speech on a class of third-year university students. I asked them to analyze his remarks and put them in context. I also asked the students how they felt, personally, about Flaherty’s appeal.

The response was critical. They did not like the pitch. They thought they were being “sold” a bill of goods.

To them, public service was uninteresting. No money. No glamour. Nice try, Mr. Flaherty, but not for us! Their view, shared by other classes, which also read the speech, was discouraging, but not surprising.

In Parliament, question period is theatre. It is more heat than light. Politicians swear in the House and in public. This is considered less vulgar than modern.

Parliamentarians have little originality and no independence. Rarely do they give speeches, like Flaherty’s, that say anything original; either they have nothing to say or they cannot say it.

Ministers no longer resign on questions of principle. The prime minister is smart and disciplined; he is also bloodless and dour. To young people, he inspires ennui, perhaps respect, but rarely passion.

They don’t vote, let alone take part in politics.

As for the idea of joining the federal civil service, the money and benefits are the attraction. But that’s the problem. A 21-year-old talking about his pension? Idealism? Forget it, dude.

Flaherty was inspired to enter public life as an undergraduate at Princeton University in the 1960s, when he heard Robert Kennedy speak.

Bobby Kennedy celebrated public service in a little-known commencement address on June 2, 1963, to Trinity College, a women’s liberal arts college in Washington, D.C. It’s a stunning speech — elegant, compelling, provocative.

He spoke of blacks, the American Indian and the mentally retarded — in the parlance of the time — showing the causes that would animate the last five years of his life. On that day, he particularly talked about the obligation of women to embrace a life bigger than that of “just a wife and mother,” suggesting that the notion “belongs to simpler times than ours — and to simpler minds than yours.”

He appealed for their involvement, not necessarily in politics, but in their communities, their cities and their country.

“Your generation will have plenty to worry about — more perhaps than any other in history,” he said. “My message here is simply that there can be no allowance for complacency in the days and years ahead, and there will be every reason and every need for your intense, personal involvement.”

Flaherty felt that and lived it. Will the students who heard him then — and since — feel the same?

Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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