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What Joe Oliver was like in university, from Liberal MP Irwin Cotler

Canada's Fnance Minister Joe Oliver.


Everyone's trying to get a read on Joe Oliver, Canada's new minister of finance.

In the House of Commons this week, he is getting peppered with questions from the opposition.

In the foyer of Centre Block Monday, he answered several questions in a scrum with reporters, but offered little insight about his plans.

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All of Mr. Oliver's nearly three years in federal politics have been as natural resources minister, limiting his public comments to that narrow public policy file. But finance offers him the opportunity to influence virtually everything Ottawa touches. Mr. Oliver has not yet offered any hints as to his personal politics or priorities.

But one MP on the opposition benches has the inside track.

To Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, the Conservative government's new finance minister is simply "the Odge."

That's what Mr. Cotler has been calling Mr. Oliver for the past 52 years, when the two dorm mates spent many late nights together working on the McGill daily student paper as two Montreal law school students with an interest in journalism. The nickname comes from reading Mr. Oliver's initials – J and O – backwards.

The 1963 McGill yearbook has a page featuring the leaders of the McGill Daily, with Mr. Cotler pictured as editor-in-chief beside a photo of Mr. Oliver as chairman of the editorial board.

Mr. Cotler remembers the young Mr. Oliver as a very smart man who didn't take himself too seriously. He remembers running to the rescue as Mr. Oliver yelled "fire" at about three in the morning, only to find Mr. Oliver pointing to his throat and blaming it on some bad take-out.

"It was typical of the Odge," said Mr. Cotler.

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Just as members of the Liberal party can come from a wide swath of the political spectrum, so too do Conservatives range from red Tories to more conservative reformers.

Mr. Cotler says he knows where the new finance minister fits.

"I'd place him on the conservative side of the conservative spectrum, and I'd probably place myself on the liberal side of the liberal spectrum," said Mr. Cotler, a former federal justice minister who was first elected in 1999 and who recently announced he will not run for re-election.

Even though they have very different political views, Mr. Cotler says Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the right choice in naming Mr. Oliver to replace Jim Flaherty, who resigned from the job last week.

"He's got a very good integrative appreciation of law, economics and public policy," said Mr. Cotler. "So I think amongst the people that Harper could have looked to choose to be the finance minister, I think he was the best choice."

Though the two friends have both been working in Ottawa since Mr. Oliver's election in 2011, Mr. Cotler said the business of politics still makes it hard to stay in touch.

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"We probably interacted less than we might have liked to as friends," said Mr. Cotler. "He works hard and he's traveled a bit and from time to time we'll walk across the aisle say a few a words and talk about the need to get together, but it hasn't happened I think as much as we both would like it."

Bill Curry covers finance in Ottawa.

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