Even as a student journalist, Joe Oliver stood out for being serious.
In 1964, as editor of the McGill Law Journal, he donned a three-piece suit for his yearbook photo, opting for the most buttoned-down appearance possible. And as chairman of the McGill Daily’s editorial board, he delighted in tackling tough issues such as student representation among university governors.
Five decades later, he has moved on to more sweeping issues. Now 73, Mr. Oliver was selected by Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week to follow in the footsteps of Jim Flaherty, who resigned as the only finance minister the Harper government had ever known.
“This is an incredible opportunity to make a contribution,” Mr. Oliver said in an interview. “That’s why I feel so privileged.”
He will have to be a quick study. Among his first tasks is to start preparing a pre-election 2015 budget for a caucus that is divided over whether it should deliver on a promise to offer income splitting for families, a promise dear to the Prime Minister and social conservatives, or veer more sharply toward fiscal restraint. As finance minister – and also responsible for the Greater Toronto Area – he must also weigh the merits of new spending on infrastructure, which the NDP and Liberals are promising to increase.
All the while, he must walk a fine line. More than any other politician in cabinet, Mr. Oliver must maintain a good rapport with the country’s top bankers, but also be sure to exhibit enough grit when necessary.
Mr. Flaherty, who retired this week, had to show plenty of it during his eight years as finance minister. Just last year he had to put his foot down and force the banks to focus on what he called “responsible” mortgage lending. And just ten months into his job he had to ban income trusts, which once generated hundreds of millions in fees for Bay Street.
Mr. Oliver’s honeymoon could be just as short.
Mr. Oliver can seem stiff, even hard to read, like the student who was all suited up. His big task now is to break that mould and communicate precisely where the government stands on key policy matters. During the past three years, when he served as natural resources minister, he focused on a narrow range of issues. As finance minister, he will have to juggle many more balls.
That’s a daunting task for anyone, let alone a grandfather in his seventies. Mr. Oliver is married to Golda Goldman and has two sons, two stepsons and a seven-year-old grandson.
Despite his age, he is known around Ottawa for his vibrancy. In his last cabinet position he proved that he can take on the gruelling demands of extensive travel – and if anything, he’s handled it better than his younger staffers. He also earned a reputation in the public service as a quick study with a sharp policy mind.
On long trips to China or India, former aides say Mr. Oliver would tap away on his iPad while everyone else watched movies. When the Internet would kick back in upon landing, the staffers would see his e-mails pile up on their phone screens.
“He’s a very energetic person,” said Toronto Conservative Senator Linda Frum, who has door-knocked with Mr. Oliver. “He behaves like someone who is 10 or 15 years younger. I think he’s the sort of guy who is not cut out for retirement activities. I think he would go bonkers.”
For a brief period about 20 years ago, Mr. Oliver’s free time was spent practising karate. He said knee trouble forced him to give that up.
“No one should feel nervous in my presence,” he said.
When he dove into politics, friends worried Mr. Oliver wouldn’t emit enough warmth to the average voter. “If you don’t know him and look at his face, he might look a little stoic,” said Jacques Ménard, chairman of investment bank BMO Nesbitt Burns.
But they swear there is a softer side to the new finance minister, and one even said he was “funny as hell.” “To know him is to appreciate his dry wit and sense of humour,” Mr. Ménard said. “He can be a piece of work.”
To Bay Street’s relief, Mr. Oliver has ample financial experience. His history includes stints as executive director of the Ontario Securities Commission, as head of the Investment Dealers Association, and as an investment banker with expertise in utilities.
Naysayers stress that the files a finance minister must juggle can be far removed from Bay Street, so his experience won’t fully prep him. Yet over the years Mr. Oliver dealt with some high-profile federal finance matters.
Much like his predecessor, he is a staunch supporter of a national securities regulator – something he’s advocated for years, and even campaigned on in 2008.
“Jim Flaherty has been a passionate advocate of getting that going,” Mr. Oliver said. “There are advantages in terms of enforcement and market efficiency and international reputation that are in play and so there are reasons to move in that direction.”
Mr. Oliver has even weighed in on bank mergers, which have been a nasty political football for years. In 2003, when a merger still seemed somewhat possible, the IDA was asked to study the potential impact on Canada’s capital markets.
“It is our judgment that the potential mergers of large Canadian banks would not negatively impact the efficiency and functioning of our capital markets,” he said in Ottawa, adding that the conclusion didn’t mean the IDA was taking a position on whether mergers should be allowed.
The past few years have broadened Mr. Oliver’s experience in the realities of cabinet politics.
He has been the face of the Canadian government in urging U.S. lawmakers to support the controversial Keystone pipeline. Whether his lobbying efforts on that front succeeded won’t be known until U.S. President Barack Obama makes his long-awaited decision on the matter.
Those who have worked with him say his biggest accomplishments at Natural Resources include negotiating and concluding energy deals on nuclear co-operation with both China and India. That work involved extensive international travel to boost Canadian energy exports.
But Mr. Oliver also oversaw a period where foreign investment in the oil and gas sector dropped sharply. Former federal industry minister Jim Prentice made headlines last fall with a report pointing out that foreign direct investment in Canada’s energy sector had dropped to $2-billion from $27-billion a year earlier.
The drop was largely attributed to new foreign-investment rules, leaving Mr. Oliver in charge of explaining the change to nervous investors.
And maybe most importantly he has also gained a sensitivity to the power of a politician’s words after enduring a storm of criticism following a 2012 open letter in which he criticized “environmental and other radical groups” that oppose all energy projects.
His words raised concern about his potential spending priorities, given that he is also minister of the Greater Toronto Area where public transit is a major issue.
“People jumped on that a lot and misinterpreted what I actually said,” Mr. Oliver explained. “What we need is a balanced approach... Issues of transportation are absolutely fundamental to the city and so I’m very supportive of subways and [Light Rail Transit].”