OTTAWA – Joe Oliver takes over the key portfolio in the Harper government as one of oldest and least politically experienced to have held the Finance post — and there are few clues about how he intends to handle his onerous duties.
With his age, 73 going on 74, coming off heart-bypass surgery last year, and with less than three years in federal politics, the Toronto-area minister would seem an odd choice to hand over the economic reins of the country the year before the Conservatives must again face the voters.
High-profile and experienced ministers — such as Jason Kenney, James Moore and Tony Clement — are better-known quantities, and more experienced on the campaign trail.
Until, that is, one considers his resume. Oliver would appear to have been groomed for the job.
A McGill University-trained lawyer with an MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business, Oliver spent a lifetime immersed in the investment banking industry, both on the front lines and in the board offices. He served as president of the Investment Dealers Association of Canada and for two years in the early 1990s as executive director of the Ontario Securities Commission.
Few if any previous finance ministers can boast such a long and varied background in finance and the markets. He did not enter politics until he was in his 70s.
“I can’t think of anybody else in the Tory caucus that would be a better candidate. Joe has all the credentials and experience. He’s a standout,” said Ian Russell, chief executive of the Investment Industry Association of Canada, who worked with Oliver for about 10 years starting in 1995.
Russell described him as capable, energetic and always prepared, someone with strong opinions who is unafraid to express them.
The minister spent the first day in office Wednesday mostly ducking the spotlight except for a few media outlets, and an unscheduled street encounter with a reporter from The Canadian Press.
Oliver said he would carry on his predecessor’s focus on creating jobs , economic growth and balancing the budget. Tellingly, he appeared to back the prime minister’s recent statements in support of income splitting — the 2011 election promise that outgoing finance minister Jim Flaherty had recently questioned.
“We’re going to be honouring the platform, but this is very early in my mandate so I’m going to be looking at the details,” he said.
To Canadians, Oliver is known — if at all — for an incendiary letter he issued in January 2012 sounding the alarm over foreign-funded “environmental and other radical groups” that want to shut down any major project in forestry, mining, oil, gas and hydro-electric dams “no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth.”
Critics believe Oliver’s over-the-top attack has made negotiations even more difficult with environmental and native groups on issues such as the Northern Gateway pipeline and even Keystone. It is hard to detect much progress on both under Oliver’s watch.
“Joe Oliver has a reputation for speaking without thinking, and he won’t be able to do that as finance minister,” said Peter Julian, the NDP’s natural resources critic, adding the minister’s remarks about environmentalists wound up hurting his own cause.
Russell says the tactic may have reflected Oliver’s inexperience — he had been less than a year on the job — but he has noticed a more measured approach since.
Given his background in investing, Russell said, Oliver is also likely to pick up the ball left by his predecessor in trying to create a national securities commissioner’s office, which currently has the support of only Ontario and British Columbia.
On regulatory powers, Oliver is more difficult to read. While with the investment dealers’ association, he argued in 2002 against government over-reach. But that was well before the 2008-2009 financial crisis revealed the dangers of too much deregulation.
The instant reaction of the markets Wednesday was not to react. The Toronto Stock Exchange retreated moderately while the loonie continued Tuesday’s slide to below 89 cents US, but analysts attributed the softness mostly to comments from Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz and his U.S. counterpart, Janet Yellen.
Analysts said Bay Street would be mostly comfortable with Oliver’s appointment because they see him as one of their own.
“He’s a straight shooter with significant experience in the financial sector which should bode well on those sorts of issues,” said Avery Shenfeld, chief economist with CIBC World Markets. “He wouldn’t have got the job without (his private-sector bona fides).”
TD Bank chief economist Craig Alexander said markets appear confident that Oliver will in the short term stay the course set by Flaherty in the last few budgets designed to create a surplus in the 2015-16 fiscal period.
The unknown, said Alexander, is what Oliver will say and do next spring when the government is likely to report the first surplus since 2007.
At that point, Oliver and Harper will have to decide between a number of options — pay down debt, cut taxes, introduce income splitting or spend it on needed infrastructure and other growth-inducing measures.
Russell says the Oliver he knew for more than a decade was more than capable of holding his own in any debate, adding he doubts Harper would have appointed him if he did not respect his opinions.