OTTAWA/TORONTO (Reuters) - Joe Oliver brings a sense of gravitas to his new job as Canada’s finance minister, an asset the governing Conservatives will want to emphasize as they prepare to fight an election against young but popular Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.
Oliver is 73 and spent decades working on Toronto’s Bay Street, the heart of Canada’s financial industry, before becoming natural resources minister after his election to Parliament in 2011. He was named finance minister on Wednesday, replacing Jim Flaherty, who resigned the day before.
His resume plays to the image the Conservatives portray of themselves as steady hands guiding the economy through challenging times, and it may explain why Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not turn to a younger face as he gets ready for the 2015 election.
Harper’s main rival, Trudeau, 42, has actually been in Parliament three years longer than Oliver but has little management or financial experience.
Early in his career, Oliver worked as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch and other investment dealers. He also served as executive director of the Ontario Securities Commission and then as president and chief executive officer of the Investment Dealers Association of Canada (IDA).
“He is not only competent, he knows the game and he knows the people,” said Tom Caldwell, who heads wealth manager Caldwell Securities and has known Oliver for more than 40 years.
“He knows literally everybody in the financial services sector because of his years as head of the IDA, where he served well, quite frankly.”
The IDA was the precursor of IIROC, or the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada, a national self-regulatory body that oversees investment dealers and trading activity in both debt and equity markets.
“I can think of no better training for Ottawa than the IDA of those days,” said Caldwell, who likened the role to that of heading the United Nations. “At least in the U.N. you have people feigning diplomatic behavior. None of that veneer existed at the IDA.”
In his tireless promotion of pipelines to get Canada’s land-locked Alberta oil sands crude to market, Oliver had drawn the disdain of environmentalists, particularly when he spoke of “environmental and other radical groups” opposing Enbridge Inc’s proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline to the Pacific Coast.
He is best known in the United States for his advocacy of TransCanada Corp’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would move oil sands crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Pressured by green groups, the Obama administration has held up approval of the project, but Oliver has often pointed out that carbon emissions from U.S. coal plants far exceed those currently produced by the oil sands.
Within Canada, he has spearheaded a push to cut red tape to make it easier for companies to develop major energy and natural resources projects.
Oliver is also seen as someone with the right credentials to push forward on an item that was at the top of Flaherty’s agenda: a national securities regulator. Ottawa has tried for decades to replace a patchwork of 13 provincial and territorial regulators with a single agency that would be more in tune with today’s globalized markets.
“Most people in our industry would like to see a national regulator. Joe probably has the ability, being a man able to seek consensus and work with people, to possibly bring that about,” Caldwell said.
Ian Russell, the head of industry lobby group IIAC, or the Investment Industry Association of Canada, concurred.
“If there is anybody in Ottawa who understands the importance and the need for a single securities regulator it is Joe Oliver,” said Russell, who worked closely with Oliver at the IDA for over a decade through the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Russell noted that Oliver has always had an abiding interest in public policy and he has a firm grasp on the issues at hand.
“Public policy can play an important role in promoting the efficiencies and functioning of the capital markets, but you can only go down that road if you understand them well, and I think Joe does. He’s worked in the capital markets his whole career,” Russell said.
Oliver has a law degree from McGill University and an MBA from Harvard. He is married to Golda Goldman and has two sons.
In January 2013 Oliver underwent heart bypass surgery but returned to active work shortly after.
“It’s been tough for Joe,” Russell said, noting Oliver’s tenacity in keeping going after his surgery and despite the setback of losing the first time he ran for election to Parliament in 2008. “That’s one of his character traits; he’s got great perseverance and he sticks with it.”
Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway