If you were casting the part of finance minister in a movie, you might pick someone like Charles Sousa. A broad-shouldered man with a booming voice and greying hair, he looks like the sort of serious, dignified figure whom you would trust with your money.
In person, Ontario’s treasurer could also pull off the role of charming uncle. In his corner office in the Frost Building one recent afternoon, he rattles off jokes and stories with ease, at one point breaking into Jean Chrétien’s distinctive Shawinigan accent when describing a meeting with the former prime minister.
A few minutes later, he catches himself just before he wanders too far out on a tangent about his undergraduate days at Wilfrid Laurier University, where he had a co-op placement at a hard-partying Calgary oil company: “I probably shouldn’t say too much about that,” he says with an impish grin.
But when the talk shifts to Mr. Sousa’s first budget, which he presents on Thursday, there is no mistaking that the significance of the fragile balancing act he must pull off is not lost on him.
“An easy answer is, ‘Let’s just slash and burn.’ But what, then, do you sacrifice? You sacrifice the potential of economic growth. And in a sensitive recovery, that can’t be,” the 54-year-old says. “But we can’t do the tax-and-spend routine because we also want to encourage investment, we also want to encourage people to come and feel confident that they can do business in Ontario and compete.”
If Mr. Sousa is feeling the pressure, there is good reason. The province is facing a deficit of at least $9.8-billion. The minority Liberals have already picked much of the low-hanging fruit, and Mr. Sousa acknowledges he will have to overhaul programs and make structural reforms to find long-term savings.
But he must also win the backing of the left-wing NDP to avoid an election with his party sagging in the polls. And he cannot alienate the Liberals’ big-tent base, which nearly came unstuck last year over a battle with teachers’ unions.
The budget, he says, will show a road map for achieving balance by 2017-18, and reform government to that end. “I want a budget that speaks to an economic plan – not just a fiscal reality,” he says. “There are certain things we can harmonize, there are certain programs we can modify.”
As the nation’s economy sputters, all eyes will be on the previously little-known man shepherding its largest province’s finances. Succeed, and Ontario continues on its road to solvency; fail, and the province will be plunged into an election that could sweep its ruling party from office.
In many ways, Mr. Sousa’s entire life has prepared him for this.
Born in Kensington Market, then the bustling hub of Toronto’s immigrant communities, he grew up in admiration of his father, Antonio, a gregarious Portuguese immigrant who ran a string of businesses – rooming house, restaurant, wholesale food operation. The family relocated to Mississauga, where Mr. Sousa has lived since.
Antonio Sousa says his younger son was a busy kid, playing football and swimming in addition to his studies. “Charles was always a going guy. He never stopped. He was a very good student, a very good kid,” he says.
Two books sparked his interest in politics: the memoirs of former finance minister Walter Gordon, and a tome about IT&T. At the time, he says, he was decidedly right-of-centre, believing people should sink or swim based on market forces.
After taking his business degree at Laurier, he set up a small financial-services company. A few years later, he joined the Royal Bank, arranging loans for small businesses. There, he says, he learned the valuable skill of satisfying a need for capital while remaining fiscally prudent.
“The easy answer is, ‘Well, that doesn’t work. No. You can’t do that, it’s too generous a request,’ ” he says. “But I would say, ‘I can do it if we make these modifications … either put up more equity or change the balance sheet.’ I always found a way to make it work. And next thing you know, they succeed.”
In the early 1990s, he went back to school for his executive MBA. As a final project, his work group toured factories in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. Mr. Sousa’s Portuguese and his ability to make connections came in handy, recalls classmate James Oosterbaan.