The PM’s latest secret weapon: Joe Oliver

In the four years since he entered politics, the finance minister has quietly established himself as one of Harper government’s most strategic assets

TORONTO, ON, August 28th, 2014 - Federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver.

Photograph by Andrew Tolson

It’s mid-August, 390 days before a federal election and the campaign has clearly started as Conservatives gather at a fundraiser for MP Terence Young, at a swish restaurant in his riding in Oakville, Ont. Platters of wasabi shrimp, dumplings and mini-sliders are circulated and wine is poured as the well-heeled crowd who’ve paid $200 a ticket await Finance Minister Joe Oliver, the evening’s guest of honour. For many, this is the first opportunity to hear from the man who replaced Jim Flaherty after the veteran finance minister’s sudden resignation in March. The arrival of the trim 74-year-old in a navy, pin-striped suit, Canadian flag pin on the lapel, is met with a low buzz; people gather to have their photo taken with him as Oliver smiles gamely for the camera.

At first glance, there would seem little in common, personality-wise at least, between the late Flaherty, known for his man-of-the-people Irish charm and being the sort of guy you’d have a proverbial beer with, and the earnest Oliver, deemed a “grumpy old man” by former NDP natural resources environment critic Megan Leslie; Oliver’s friends report he relaxes by reading Commentary and rarely imbibes more than a half-glass of wine. But Oliver is now as important to Stephen Harper’s fortunes as Flaherty ever was.

In the four years since Oliver entered politics, he has quietly established himself as one of the Harper government’s most strategic assets. In 2011, at 70, an age most Canadians are deemed unemployable or retired, the former Bay Street investment banker turned market regulator toppled a Liberal stalwart on his second try and won the Conservatives a breakthrough seat in the coveted Toronto city core. As a rookie MP, he was rewarded with the high-profile Natural Resources portfolio. This spring, a year after bouncing back from triple-bypass heart surgery, the man who names Margaret Thatcher as inspiration was handed Finance, a portfolio that thrusts him into the spotlight in an election year; it’s up to Oliver to deliver and sell an election-friendly budget while helping spearhead the Conservatives’ election in and around the Greater Toronto Area.

Party talking points are highlighted in Oliver’s 20-minute speech delivered without notes: the $6.4-billion surplus means government can “reduce taxes for hard-working, middle-class Canadians,” he tells the crowd to applause, promising “no reckless spending spree” and limited government interference: “You’re better off making decisions about your money—where you want to spend it, where you want to save it, than some social engineer or bureaucrat in Ottawa.” He boasts federal personal income tax is “at the level it was when Diefenbaker was prime minister” and that his government “focused like a laser beam on job growth and economic welfare of Canadians,” a nod to persistent national unemployment of seven per cent, and youth unemployment of 14 per cent.

Oliver also jabs at the Liberals’ “tax-and-spend initiatives” and Justin Trudeau’s statement that “budgets balance themselves.” “Well, budgets don’t balance themselves, they require a plan and they require discipline,” says Oliver. He slams the Liberals’ proposed carbon tax, warning of an “advancing a multi-billion-dollar tax on everything.” Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne is also mocked for requesting $12 billion for infrastructure: “If you extrapolate that to the rest of the country, [it] would be another $30 billion in additional debt every year.” Throughout, Oliver references his boss, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, praising him as “dean of the G20 leaders” for his stance on Ukraine and Israel. It’s a bravura partisan performance, capped by questions from the floor that Oliver fields with ready statistics and good humour. When it’s over, the crowd throngs around him.

The event stood in stark contrast to a far less scripted evening last May: a private cocktail reception thrown by Gerry Sheff, co-founder of Bay Street investment adviser Guskin Sheff + Associates at Sheff’s modernist, art-filled house to fete Oliver’s promotion. The gathering reflected the new finance minister’s entrenchment in the country’s elite, a group connected less by partisan ideology than profile and power. Five years ago, Oliver was less well-known than most there that night, a group that included past and present heads of major financial institutions, former Ontario premier David Peterson and former diplomat Allan Gotlieb; now, he’s the guest of honour.

Some guests, including Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, knew Oliver since he was “the Odge” (JO backwards) at McGill University, a policy wonk who headed the McGill Law Journal’s editorial board and wore a three-piece suit in the yearbook photo. Most know him from his 37 years on Bay Street, where some called him “Teflon Joe” and he sat on endless industry committees and on boards of high-profile charities, including Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and chair of the Prostate Cancer Research Foundation of Canada. Also present were friends from another network: Holy Blossom, Canada’s most activist and influential synagogue, whose attendees include Gottlieb, Sen. Irving Gerstein, Onex chairman Gerry Schwartz and Indigo CEO Heather Reisman.

Within his broad circle, Oliver summons admiration. “He’s rock solid guy, says Sheff, who recalls bonding with him over their mutual divorces three decades ago. “There’s nothing fancy-pants about him; he has no sense of entitlement.” Proof of that, in this crowd, is that Oliver drives himself to his private club. “Smart as hell,” is how his former boss, Ken Copland, describes him. Copland, former vice-chairman of BMO Nesbitt Burns, met Oliver in 1970 at Merrill Lynch Royal Securities. When Copland left for Nesbitt Thompson, he recommended Oliver for his job, then later hired Oliver away. “Joe’s a gentleman, he’s honest, he’s witty as can be, he’s happily married, a good father, and a terrible athlete,” Copland says. Hugh Segal, former Conservative senator and now master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, recalls meeting Oliver in the 1990s when he was a lobbyist for the Investment Dealers Association (IDA), where he’d talk passionately about fiscal policy and advocated for a national securities regulator, an entity he’s still working to create: “He was a sunburst of intellectual acuity and intensity and he did not lack a sense of humour as so many folks in the investment industry sometimes did,” says Segal, who’s a regular with Oliver at the annual “boys’ weekend” at Sheff’s country house, along with former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae: “We’ve had some wonderful blow-out discussions, me being a classic Red Tory, him not being one,” Segal says. “Joe has never been afraid to express his point of view. And I say that as someone who disagrees with him quite a bit on some issues.”

The night of his party for Oliver, Sheff silenced the crowd to pay tribute: “No one can ever accuse Joe of peaking too soon,” he joked. That’s an understatement. After being put out to pasture at the IDA, Oliver forged a whole new career as a surprisingly adept retail politician who now has the country’s second-top job. His appointment to Finance was clearly strategic, given his history as an Establishment man with deep personal connections to Ontario-based money and power. But, if past performance is the best indication of future performance, as they like to say on Bay Street, the man with something to prove and nothing to lose may be the one politician to watch.

In late August, Joe Oliver is in Toronto, in his office on the 24th floor of an office tower in the heart of the financial district, as part of a push to his visibility in the city. He’s hired staff to build contacts with “stakeholders” and local officials. Today alone he’ll conduct five in-person media interviews, a departmental briefing, and a pre-budget consultation. Yet the minister is more interested in talking about just completing the ALS ice bucket challenge. “Strategic” is a word often used to describe Oliver; the quality is evident when he shares the list of people he challenged: John Tory, the Toronto mayoral candidate, “because he needs the exposure”; NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen “because he’s my critic”; Ontario Liberal Finance Minister Charles Sousa, “to pour cold water on his $12-billion ask.” Oliver, who can appear almost Eeyore-like on TV, is engaging and forthcoming one-on-one. He’s definitely chatty, says Sen. Linda Frum, who campaigned with him. “He gets really engaged with voters and it can be quite charming, but not if you’re leading him from door to door. Whether he’s talking to a supporter or a foe, you have to say, ‘Joe, you can’t spend 15 minutes per person.’ ”

He also doesn’t hesitate to voice displeasure. When Dan Miles, a former Flaherty aide now running his Toronto office, hovers, placing two tape recorders on a table to capture the conversation before sitting in a chair inches from the minster, Oliver bristles: “Could I have some space here?” he asks.

Oliver, born in Montreal in 1940, paints a picture of a humble upbringing—“but not quite a log cabin,” he jokes. His father was a dentist, but before dentists made “big money,” noting his dad bought his first car at age 40. His mother, a teacher, was forced to quit when she married. “She thought that was outrageous.” The family lived in middle-class Notre-Dame-de-Grâce on Grand Boulevard—which “was neither grand nor a boulevard,” he says.

Oliver describes himself as a “normal” kid: “I wasn’t the nerd in the corner and I wasn’t the football star.” He could be a bit mouthy, he says: “My father would tell me I’ve got to be careful.” Verbal alacrity took him to McGill, where he graduated in the law class of ’64. “It was law or medicine,” says Oliver. “I didn’t particularly like the sight of blood but I was comfortable with words.” Awarded a Quebec government scholarship, he pursued graduate legal studies at the University of Paris, in part to better his French. He returned to practise civil law before earning an M.B.A. from Harvard in 1970; he hoped it would give him competitive advantage in corporate law: “No other Quebec lawyer had one,” he says. Drawn by the pace and money of investment banking, he was hired by Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. in New York, then went to work at its Canadian arm. For a change of pace, he became director of the Ontario Securities Commission in 1991, leaving two years later to join First Marathon Securities, a boutique known for its “eat what you kill” mantra. In 1995, he was named CEO and president of the Investment Dealers Association, a self-regulator that policed the industry and acted as a trade industry group. He stayed for 12 years, leaving just after the two functions were separated into an industry lobby group, IIAC, and regulator, IIROC.

The protracted negations proved Oliver adept in handling alpha males, says Ron Lloyd, now chairman of Credit-Suisse Securities, who was involved in the negotiations. “You had all of these A-type personalities and everyone had an opinion,” he says. “One of Joe’s strengths was a great ability to listen. He was able to act as a catalyst for coalition around key issues; he moved the ball forward.” “He also could be stubborn,” says William Moriarty, now CEO and president of University of Toronto Asset Management Corp. “It could take a while to get him to move to the middle ground—it took lots of convincing.”

Oliver didn’t make as much money at the IDA as he did in investment banking, he offers, “but I wasn’t working for the national poverty association either; I was a paid a good wage.” He loved the public policy aspect of the work and travelling to talk about Canada to senior people in government and business. He says he considered running for office in the 1990s but rejected the idea: “It would have been a huge sacrifice—I was bringing up a family. Also, the prospects were uneven.” He’d long leaned to the far right of centre for philosophical and practical reasons, he says: “My values start with freedom; the government has a role—an important role. But what is the public policy justification for it?”

Pierre Trudeau influenced his movement to the right, Oliver says: “He was pushing for the government’s involvement in everything.” Oliver was living in the U.S. when the War Measures Act was enforced: “Being a little more libertarian, it shocked me.” He also noted more successful economies are those in which the government didn’t have as big a role: “Socialist countries don’t tend to do well.” Margaret Thatcher remains an inspiration: “She saved the U.K. at a very difficult time. She was tough but clear about what she wanted to do. And she was successful until they booted her out.”

In 2007, at age 67, politics beckoned again when his contract at the IDA wasn’t renewed. “I wasn’t anxious to stop working,” Oliver says. In early 2007, he’d received a call from Tom Hockin, a former Mulroney cabinet minister then running the Investment Funds Institute of Canada, saying Prime Minister Harper was looking for candidates. Oliver, “intrigued and a bit flattered,” considered the Toronto midtown riding of St. Paul’s, where Peter Kent had been defeated by 25 per cent in 2006. “I said Peter Kent is highly recognized, a nice guy. Why would I do better than him?” Eglinton-Lawrence, a Liberal stronghold held by Joe Volpe since 1988, offered a fighting chance: a lesser-known Conservative candidate had lost by 23 per cent. The riding is diverse ethnically—Italian, Jewish, Somali, Filipino—and also economically as the home to Lawrence Heights housing projects and the mansions of Lawrence Park. Oliver started making calls, reaching lawyer Stanley Hartt, Mulroney’s ex-chief of staff, who was on the riding’s nominating committee. Oliver prevailed over a huge nomination battle, Hartt recalls.

Oliver tried to bring his “small-c conservative” view of economic freedom and opportunity to the big-L riding. He talked a lot about the negative effects of rent control, and excessive taxation on direct foreign investment to Canada, says Segal, who campaigned with him. He lost by 2,000 votes, but was out campaigning again the next day. Oliver knocked on an estimated 38,000 doors over the next 3½ years. “He worked like a dog,” says Hartt, noting Oliver specifically targeted Filipino and Somali communities. The party brought in the big guns: cabinet ministers Flaherty and Jason Kenney stumped, as did right-leaning locals, including Toronto city Councillor Doug Ford and MP Julian Fantino. Oliver, who’d met the Prime Minister during the 2007 campaign, recalls his first conversation with Harper, a half-hour discussion of riding politics on the campaign bus. “He was interviewing me,” Oliver says. “I didn’t realize it until after.” “Cerebral” is the first word he uses to describe Harper.

Sandra Buckler, Harper’s former director of communications turned consultant, received a call from party headquarters to become a foot soldier. “Joe was a force of nature,” she says. “He was not leaving anything to chance.” In 2011, Oliver won by more than 4,000 votes, a win Hartt attributes to a well-orchestrated “get out the vote” effort. Volpe saw otherwise, alleging phone calls “that pretended to be from the Liberal party but clearly were not” drove down his vote count. In 2011, Elections Canada reported it was looking into the allegations but the issue has disappeared from public view.

Oliver admits he was on tenterhooks hoping for a cabinet post; he says he was losing faith when then chief of staff Nigel Wright called to say the Prime Minister wanted to see him at Harrington Lake. Natural Resources came as a surprise, he says: “But it is an economic portfolio; I had some experience; I had done financing for gas companies.” The choice was strategic, says Segal: “You don’t choose a minister of natural resources from downtown Calgary.” Industry was delighted with the choice.

Oliver’s allegiance to industry interests was highlighted a month after the election, in June 2011, when he promised that chrysotile asbestos, a carcinogen known to cause lung disease, could be used “in a safe and controlled manner,” in support of the foundering Quebec asbestos industry, a Harper campaign promise. He also finalized the sale of Atomic Energy of Canada to SNC-Lavalin. “That was big, an important statement,” says Oliver.

His ability to adapt his personal style to the parliamentary style impressed Hartt. “You can’t mumble, you have to speak at the top of your lungs, you have to cut to the chase, which is not Joe.” Frum wasn’t surprised: “He’s a decent and gentle person but he has a thick skin and he can handle rough and tumble.” Oliver proved an outspoken defender of the oil sands as “Canada’s economic engine,” cheerleading relentlessly for two controversial pipelines: Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, which remains mired in court challenges, and TransCanada’s Keystone XL, which was blocked by the Obama administration. In a January 2012 open letter calculated to elicit media coverage and controversy, Oliver attacked Canadians who opposed oil sands expansion, calling them “radicals . . . with radical ideological agenda[s]” who “use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest.” Predictably, the letter summoned fierce backlash, particularly in British Columbia, where Oliver also drew ire for describing First Nations communities as “socially dysfunctional” and promising trailing pond water would be safe enough to drink.

Oliver remains unrepentant. “When you say something that’s politically incorrect but correct, opponents can’t criticize what you said because it’s accurate. So they attack you personally or they can misrepresent what you said. And both happened.”

Pitching Canada’s oil and gas sector kept Oliver on the road; he was the third-most travelled minister, behind Harper and John Baird, minister of foreign affairs; his department spent more than $2 million on travel, Oliver’s share amounting to close to $334,000. Destinations included four trips to China and two to India to negotiate deals on nuclear co-operation. He also travelled to Israel three times as natural resources minister, once accompanying the Prime Minister on his first visit to the Jewish state this January.

Selling natural resources is clearly a priority for the Harper government; it comprised nearly two-thirds of the federal advertising spending. Under Oliver, Natural Resources’ advertising ballooned from $237,000 in 2010-11 to $40 million in 2012-13; $24 million spent advertising abroad, $16.5 million domestically. In 2013, Oliver requested another $12.9 million to augment an international campaign designed to portray Canada as a stable and environmentally responsible source of energy, a sales pitch vigorously contested at home, where Oliver presided over the streamlining of regulatory checks on energy industry mega-projects.

On March 17, two days before Flaherty’s resignation was made public, Oliver got word the Prime Minister wanted to speak to him while he was waiting to board a flight. For five hours, he wondered whether the news was good or bad; when he heard, he was “delighted.” Insiders say Flaherty’s departure wasn’t a surprise. A month earlier, Flaherty, battling illness, went off party message when he questioned the merits of income-splitting for couples with dependent children under age 18, sparking speculation that the Conservatives were stepping back from a 2011 campaign promise. Harper signalled his disapproval when he uncharacteristically stood in the House to take a half-hour of questions directed at Flaherty, with the minister sitting two seats away. Appointing Oliver was viewed as a masterstroke—hard-right fiscal continuity from a former Bay Streeter without being seen to anoint a prospective Conservative leader. “Whatever you might think about Joe, one is not going to think he’s secretly conspiring to unseat the Prime Minister,” says Segal. After Oliver’s private swearing-in, Harper tweeted it was business as usual: “[Oliver] will continue to strengthen the economy & balance the budget by 2015.”

Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair called the appointment “a disappointment,” and suggested Oliver is “an even more dogmatic, hard-line right-winger” than Flaherty.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May saw the move as a signal to Bay Street: “You don’t have to worry: One of your own now has his hand on the tiller,” a criticism that nicely summarizes the appointment. Scott Clark, a past deputy minister of finance who left government in 2005, believes Oliver’s Bay Street background is absolutely of no benefit as a minister of finance: “He’s responsible for tax decisions, federal-provincial issues like pension reform, and international relations; he has no experience in any of that,” he says, noting the Conservatives’ 2011 campaign promises have eaten up much of next year’s pre-election budget.

Others suggest it doesn’t matter who the finance minister is; the Prime Minister is calling the shots. Oliver disagrees: “I make my own decisions about what I am going to recommend to the Prime Minister and cabinet; It’s not different from any other government to my knowledge.” Oliver is no puppet, says Sheff: “He’s aligned ideologically; he’s totally in sync.”

That’s reflected in Oliver’s ongoing campaign for “responsible” development of natural resources, which he calls a “defining issue” for Canada. In Oakville, he attacked opponents of hydrocarbon development as having no basis in fact: “It’s an ideological thing.” The government’s mission, he says, is “educating the Canadian public” on the fact the country must diversify markets to replace markets being lost, now that the U.S. is producing oil and shale gas: “To do that, we need to build infrastructure—which is to say the pipelines.”

Oliver is clearly worried about international economic fragility, pointing to declining growth in China and Europe. The Canadian housing market is less of a concern: “We don’t think there’s a bubble here,” he says. “Neither does the CMHC.” He’s leaning to a “low-tax, job stimulus” plan, he says, while crossing the country, in pre-budget consultation. Any comment on its content is premature, he says when asked about income-splitting. He’ll provide an economic update to the nation in the late fall; many expect him to announce the deficit has been eliminated. Already, Oliver is facing pressure from fiscal conservatives, including C.D. Howe Institute academics, to delay deficit reduction and spend to bring down unemployment, an issue that bedevilled Thatcher.

A surplus will put also Oliver under pressure from his caucus, with everyone coming to Finance looking for something, says Christopher Ragan, an economics professor at McGill and former Flaherty adviser who recalls Flaherty had a rubber stamp for printing the word “No” on budget requests. If past performance is an indicator, Oliver won’t cave. To take a page from the “What would Margaret Thatcher do?” handbook, he’ll cut taxes, quash unions, bully opponents and get government out of people’s lives, believing the free market will conquer all. That he’s doing this at 74, an age many Canadians are fearful about their own financial resources, isn’t something Oliver likes highlighted, friends say. When asked, Oliver offers he’s happy to be a role model: “to the extent to which I’m the leading edge on that, terrific.” Sheff watches his friend’s second act with amazement: “It’s bizarre: He was unemployable in a conventional situation; now he’s highly employable.” As for how long that will last, we’ll just have to keep watching.

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