WASHINGTON – It’s been a mournful entrance onto the world financial stage for Jim Flaherty’s successor, whose first international meetings as finance minister have been marked by offers of condolence.
Joe Oliver says he was greeted with words of sorrow from colleagues as he arrived at the annual spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and G7 and G20 finance ministers.
His predecessor, Flaherty, had been the longest-serving finance minister in the G7 and was a fixture at these meetings, as evidenced by some of the testimonials from the people who approached Oliver.
“They told me how much they will miss his presence — his presence around the table, and his contributions to the discussions,” Oliver told reporters Friday.
“They remarked what a warm and dedicated person he was. They spoke of his sense of humour, and how strong he was in defending his positions. It quickly became obvious to me that he was as admired around the world as he was, and is, in Canada.”
Some of those conversations took place in public view, as the G20 opened the doors to a working dinner so media could record different testimonials about Flaherty from Australia’s treasury secretary, Bank of England chief Mark Carney, and Oliver. The head of the IMF and cabinet ministers from France and the U.S. were among other international figures to offer public statements about Flaherty.
Canada’s new finance minister said he called Flaherty soon after last month’s cabinet shuffle. He didn’t reach him, but received a call back quickly.
“We had a private conversation, which I don’t feel at liberty to disclose,” Oliver said. “He was very supportive, as he always has been. We talked a bit about some personal issues, but I can’t go beyond that.”
The meeting itself had a surreal dynamic to it, given the Russian presence in conversations about what to do in Ukraine.
To provide support for Ukraine’s cash-strapped government, the IMF is working up a loan package to provide up to $18 billion in assistance. However, Russia has threatened to demand advance payment from Ukraine for natural gas that Russia supplies to the country.
Oliver said it didn’t get too awkward.
“The Russian presence was noted of course,” he said.
“Russia’s interventions were directly related to the issues that all the other countries were talking about. So one wouldn’t have known that there was an issue, actually. I don’t think it had any impact — to my knowledge — of multilateral discussions.”
He said the issue also came up without Russia’s presence, in a conversation among the G7 — a forum Russia has been expelled from. He wouldn’t reveal the nature of those discussions.
However, he said he wants to see the IMF do more.
“We’ve indicated our willingness to allocate up to $220 million (from Canada), at the moment, to development and to help them discharge their obligations,” Oliver said.
“I would say the numbers that the IMF are looking at — well, I believe we’ll need more than the numbers that the IMF are currently looking at in the Ukraine. But this is an issue that is subject to continual study and review.”
Another challenge at the meeting stemmed from the failure of the U.S. Congress to ratify agreed-upon IMF reforms. The organization has been working for years on an effort to give greater power to emerging countries, and expand its resources — but that effort has slammed into one of the most unproductive, deadlocked congresses in U.S. history.
The G20 has said it will begin seeking a Plan B if U.S. lawmakers don’t ratify the agreement by year’s end.
“We are deeply disappointed with the continued delay in progressing the IMF quota and governance reforms agreed to in 2010,” the G20 finance ministers and central bankers said in a statement Friday.
“We urge the U.S. to ratify these reforms at the earliest opportunity… If the 2010 reforms are not ratified by year-end, we will call on the IMF to build on its existing work and develop options for next steps.”
The organization said it also made progress on a growth strategy to add two per cent to the global GDP over five years, above the projected level. Oliver reiterated a promise to include tax cuts in the next federal budget — a pre-election blueprint following Canada’s anticipated return to surplus.
He was accompanied at the meeting by a fellow newcomer.
Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz was also attending his first spring meeting in Washington. Like his predecessor, Carney, he paid tribute to a late finance minister he’d also worked closely with.
“What set (Flaherty) apart was — Jim was your ordinary man,” Poloz told a news conference Friday.
“You immediately connected to him, after just a few minutes. And once that was true you knew that you’d already captured the fact that he was there for Canada, 100 per cent. That’s what he did all day, every day.
“To everything that he did he brought this dose of common sense — that ordinariness, which was very positive. People found it attractive, and helpful. (And) his gut instincts were usually right. A lot of his legacy is right there for us. And good on him. I’ll miss him tremendously.”