Parliamentarian of the Year: John Baird

The charming Conservative

by Aaron Wherry

John Baird

Photograph by Peter Bregg

On a sweltering morning one week ago, the standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics convened in Parliament’s West Block to hear the testimony of Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister’s director of communications. Only the government, in a new test of parliamentary democracy, had decided it would no longer allow its staff to appear at such hearings. And so, in Soudas’s place, the Prime Minister’s Office sent John Baird.

What followed was a great tempest. But while opposition members fumed—“This in my view is a subversion of Canadians,” snapped Liberal MP Wayne Easter—there were caveats for Baird. The Bloc’s Carole Freeman lamented that he was not who the committee had asked for, but welcomed Baird personally: “I’ve got nothing against Mr. Baird attending the committee. I even find it charming.” That adjective was then seconded by the NDP’s Bill Siksay. “I think,” offered Conservative Pierre Poilievre at one point, “we could probably pass a motion to that effect if it were so moved.”

Be it so moved then that John Baird is a charming fellow. That the public visage of question period—mouth open, brow furrowed, eyes blazing—is not merely Stephen Harper’s most aggressive lieutenant. That it is time for a more fulsome appreciation of what Baird does for a living. That, with an all-party vote of his colleagues confirming his stature, he is simply better at this than anyone else. “He is an enigma of sorts,” says the NDP’s Paul Dewar.

He is also a geek of sorts. He fell for this stuff as a teenager and was elected to the Ontario legislature at 26. At 41, his office walls are cluttered with pictures of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and John Diefenbaker.

Aside from the Prime Minister’s own, Baird’s is perhaps the definitive face of the Harper era. He was the minister charged with marshalling the Accountability Act, the signature promise of the new government, into existence. When the environment threatened to become the government’s greatest weakness, he was the one sent to chase off the critics. When the recession became unavoidable, he was assigned to oversee the billions in federal stimulus. When Laureen Harper needs a date to a gala, it’s Baird who escorts her. And when Harper is absent, or a minister is imperilled, it is Baird who stands during question period to lead the response.

He is the man once parodied by This Hour Has 22 Minutes as an unruly dog in need of training. “He is the best at avoiding questions,” observes Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay, not entirely complimentary. But he is also the man kibitzing with every colleague and acquaintance he comes across as he strolls the halls of Centre Block—one ideological foe calls him a “sweetheart”—and the minister widely recognized for his ability to reach across the aisle. “I do find it funny when people just assume that if I’m in a restaurant that I’m going to walk up to them and start yelling and screaming at them,” Baird says.

He is gifted with a politician’s memory—that ability to instantly recall the connections of names, faces and events. In conversation, he is a succession of anecdotes and jokes and kind words. He enthuses about the process of negotiation. Dewar, a fellow Ottawa-area MP who has collaborated with Baird on capital issues, calls him “pragmatic” and “straight up.” “He understands that if you’re going to move things along that you need to engage,” Dewar says. The NDP’s Denise Savoie says he’s a “model of courtesy” and attentive when she raises the concerns of her Victoria riding, maybe more so than any minister she’s ever dealt with.

“Every now and then I want to say, ‘Who is the real John Baird?’ ” says Liberal MP Rob Oliphant. “Is he that charming, boyish kind of person who is trying to win over the hearts of people? Or is he the pit bull?” The answer is both. Because both are politics. And John Baird is politics.

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Parliamentarian of the Year: John Baird

  1. What timing Maclean's. More like angry child of the year.

    • I was astonished at the chutzpah of this clown today

    • Absolutely the worse choice for this award in years, no decades. He is a bully and solely driven by partisan interests. Maclean's should be ashamed.

      • maclean's didn't vote for him, parliamentarians did

    • I agree, he is a loud mouth s**t disturber and doesn't deserve this award.
      Shame on Maclean's.
      Don

  2. IN the name of decency rescind this award and give it to someone who respects our parlimentary process and democracy. This man is not a parlimentarian in my opinion and could not hold a candle of decency to the likes of Dief, Pearson, Stanfield, Clark, Trudeau

  3. Congratulations, John Baird!

    Loved Wherry's close: "The answer is both. Because both are politics. And John Baird is politics."

  4. John Baird deserves a brown shirt not an award. His bully boy behaviour is indicative of his Party's disrespect for Parliament and its contempt for democracy. His storming of the Ethics Committee hearing today is just the latest example of Conservative thuggery. If this prat is Parliamentarian of the Year then we are on the brink of totalitarianism in this country.

    • This is satire, right? You almost had me thinking you were serious, but the "brink of totalitarianism" bit gave away the joke.

  5. Am I the only one who, upon seeing John Baird, impulsively searches the minister's hands for a crudely crafted caveman's club, or the lifeless pelt of some freshly-felled saber-toothed tiger?

    • Baird the Barbarian. I think he's a total ass.

    • I love the contradiction between Baird's caveman image and the testimonials from people who actually know him as a sweetheart. The best part was when NDP MP Denise Savoie called him a “model of courtesy”.

      Wherry did a good job exploring this paradox.

      • Why do you love the contradiction?

        • Because I have a deep and abiding affection for complexities that can't be explained away by the usual facile assumptions that people rely on.

          • OK, nice, I like that. Or to paraphrase, oversimplification leads to erroneous conclusions.

            I'll wager that, in general terms at least, you would support examining, exploring and exposing the complexities?

            Assuming you're on board with that, why do you suppose we don't see more of those behaviours, especially from folks who you and I both know have the skills and knowledge to do exactly that?

          • I'll wager that, in general terms at least, you would support examining, exploring and exposing the complexities?

            Absolutely.

            Assuming you're on board with that, why do you suppose we don't see more of those behaviours, especially from folks who you and I both know have the skills and knowledge to do exactly that?

            By "folks who you and I both know have the skills and knowledge to do exactly that", are you referring to politicians? Journalists? Commenters on these boards? Everyone?

          • In order of increasing average ability of the groups, some of the commenters on these boards, more politicians (including Baird himself, Harper, Kenney, Prentice, Clement from the CPC bench), and most journalists.

            An assessment of LPC and NDP bench strength will be available, but not until I've slept on it. :-)

          • That's a tall order. You're asking me why commenters, politicians, and journalists tend towards simple explanations rather than complex, ambiguous ones? For politicians, it's more effective; for journalists, it's easier; for commenters, it's all about neurotransmitter reward and pleasure pathways in the brain.

          • You're asking me why commenters, politicians, and journalists tend towards simple explanations rather than complex, ambiguous ones?

            Yes (in general terms), and no (we've drifted away from your originating post and my first query to you).

            To take this specifc example of Baird and his Jekyl and Hyde persona…we are now being told that the face that the general public sees, the caveman Baird, is to a large extent a facade, and that behind that facade is a sweetheart: fine. Why the facade?

          • …the finale…

            I have to believe that Baird himself, CPC leadership and many Ottawa journalists knew that this was a facade, and yet did little to nothing to dispell that image. Arguably, if some of those folks did nothing to dispell the image, others (including Baird himself) were possibly doing things to enhance that false image.

            And for what purpose? For the journalists because it's easier to go along rather than to enighten the public? For the CPC leadership because it helps to maintain the us against them meme (is that the right use of that word?) so as to keep the base energized? For Baird himself because it's funny to be misunderstood?

            I don't get. If any of those rationales are true, I find that to be extremely depressing. Help me understand!! ;-)

          • Phil, these are excellent questions, but I'm afraid I don't have any easy answers to the John Baird Enigma. Hopefully a journalist like Wherry will someday explore these questions in depth (it would probably require substantial research and dozens of interviews).

          • Just rereading this thread, and ….tend towards simple explanations rather than complex, ambiguous ones

            I'll take (a bit of an) exception to that, in the sense that you have combined complex and ambiguous, perhaps suggesting that by definition a complex explanation is necessarily or at least likely to be ambiguous. I'll suggest that simple answers are just as likely to be ambiguous, that simplicity does not guarantee clarity. Given that, I'm in total agreement that an ambiguous statement or explanation is useless.

          • " For politicians, it's more effective; for journalists, it's easier; for commenters, it's all about neurotransmitter reward and pleasure pathways in the brain."

            I dunno, that sounds like an oversimplification to me. Then again, there's no telling what your neurotransmitters are rewarding you for if rational thought isn't guiding the commentary.

          • I dunno, that sounds like an oversimplification to me.

            Heh. I was trying to be pithy. Pithiness is not the friend of complexity.

            Then again, there's no telling what your neurotransmitters are rewarding you for if rational thought isn't guiding the commentary.

            True. I was pointing out that neurotransmitters often reward simplistic thinking that affirms one's own beliefs.

          • Don't agree with much you say on here Crit_Reasoning, but I want to frame this quote!

        • Why do you love the contradiction?

          The wise man is pleased to discover truth; the fool when he discovers falsehood.

          • Actually the fool has trouble distinguishing which is which. But I'm delighted either way.

      • MP's remarking on another MP can't really be considered worth too much, can it? I mean that seriously.
        Yeah we're all pretty complex, and it takes a lot to really know us, but this man can hardly be a model of courtesy.
        "We're gonna go over Canadians heads" and all that…the shouting, i mean, really?

    • Question period is theater, and that's the way it should be. Good politicians realize this and deftly play their roles in a way that furthers their mandate. Behind the scenes there's another dynamic. Deals, compromises, trade-offs. This is all part of the democratic process. Good politicians understand the system and know how to get things done within it. For example, Gilles Duceppe is a good politician. He's serving his francophone base very well. He obviously understands the vagaries of parliament and knows how to position his cause for full effect. Baird is another good politician. His irate pit-bull routine is very effective at furthering the conservative mandate. Behind the scenes he's a good deal-maker. Unfortunately for the Liberals, their leader seems to lack any sort of political saavy. He just doesn't seem to get the get it.

    • Apparently Macleans was overtaken by MAD magazine during decisionmaking for parliamentarian of the year award. Was Macleans being sarcastic and I missed the joke? How can anyone take Macleans seriously after this? Bullying and belligerant Baird makes Sue Sylvester from Glee look like the flying nun! I used to refer to Baird as Fred Flintstone, but no longer wish to insult the animated caveman (Fred).

  6. I'm looking forward to Jim Joyce being named umpire of the year in your next issue.

  7. Macleans shows it has no credibility. Are they so politically slanted to seriously think this moron deserves such an award? Who can believe anything this mag. says anymore?

  8. Perhaps you should have gone back and reviewed his contribution to the Harris/Giorno years in Ontario.

  9. The MP's vote on these "awards". Don't blame Macleans for the results.

    • How about blaming them for the methodology used or the name given to this popularity contest?
      Good thing they didn't name him Parliamentarian of the Universe

  10. After I got past the initial puke-in-my-mouth reaction to Baird winning this thing, I actually read Wherry's piece. I was relieved to find out there's more to the guy than just the pit bull we're using to seeing. It sounds like the guy does a lot of the 'right things' — working with the opposition, etc. — when the cameras aren't rolling. At the same time, it's the pit bull that gets all the attention, and his behaviour on that score is hardly exemplary. That show at the committee yesterday was a complete embarrassment. If our future MPs (of whatever political stripe) are going to emulate his antics, we're all in trouble.

  11. When I heard about this grotesque choice, I was reminded of the comdian Tom Lehrer's comment many years ago that "Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize".

    • If there was any left after that, Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize finished it off.

  12. A shame McLean's has chosen to publish this nonsense and degrade their own credibility at a time when many of Canada's politicians are an embarassment, especially this one.

    • Yes, but since the Parliamentarians betrayed all principles of decency, goodness, and sunlit fields of daisies by voting for John Baird it is clearly an outrageous outrage that Macleans dared to publish said results, at least without condemning them as the coming of the Apocalypse.

      Come on McKinnell. Get with the program.

      • it is clearly an outrageous outrage that…

        I am now trying to imagine what a non-outrageous outrage might look like.

    • When parliament was prorogued? Who voted? Baird?

  13. I agree totally with "gottabesaid". My God, what were you people at McLeans thinking? This man is no role model for any aspiring politician or, for that matter, for anyone aspiring to be a mature adult. Watching him on Question Period, one gets the sense that he loves his pit-bull performances and the attention he gets from them. Well John, a newsflash for you…..you can get the same amount of attention in positive ways as well as negative. You may have accomplished many good things in your political career but personally, I don't care. Your propensity to be a whiney-tantrum-baby trumps it all. Your performance at the Committee the other day was reprehensible and showed you to be out-of-control, rude and arrogant. You are an embarrassment to Parliament and the Canadian people.

  14. Both Maclean's and Parliament are becoming more irrelevant to the daily life of Canadians. Neither Baird nor Duceppe are close to being what a vast majority of Canadians would want their federal representatives to be if we had a choice.
    Our only reasonable choice it seems to me is to ignore the politicians and stop reading Maclean's.

    • Sadly, I must agree. I will no longer be purchasing Macleans.

  15. imagine how bad the conservatives would be if they had a majority ?

    the invasion by baird and the other bozos was crafted by the boss – this was planned

  16. Apparently Macleans was overtaken by MAD magazine during decisionmaking for parliamentarian of the year award. Was Macleans being sarcastic and I missed the joke? How can anyone take Macleans seriously after this? Bullying and belligerant Baird makes Sue Sylvester from Glee look like the flying nun!

  17. God help us if John Baird is an example of parliamentarian of the year.
    How he ever got elected to Ottawa after losing in Ontario is beyond comprehension. He is nothing more the a big mouthed jerk.

  18. Makes me feel less bad about letting my subscription lapse. The author of this piece has clearly not been in Ottawa long enough to know what he's talking about.

  19. Ok, that takes the cake. What planet or drug is Aaron Wherry on? Baird is not liked on Parliament Hill, the other MPs who commented were either being entirely sarcastic or were trying to be charitable.

    The man is a rude, beligerant bully who needs to be taught a few manners. He is a disgrace to Canada and does not and will never understand that he is being used, he is and never will be one of the gang.

    Macleans has just lost any credibility as well.

  20. MacLeans has finally shown itself to be a neo-con supporter – I'll never buy or read your magazine again…

    • Parliamentarians vote for these themselves. Macleans doesn't make the choices. They obviously need to make this clearer because numbers of people seem to think they've chosen them.

  21. I would like to see the Top Parliamentarian in Ottawa dress the part . If he does not earn sufficient bucks to dress in a fashion that would suit the title , we consider undeserved , perhaps we might chip in to help him to purchase some suspenders and shoe polish. But then as his behaviour on the Hill reveals, he thinks he is doing OK. LW

  22. Steve Harper, President, the Corporate Party of Canada

     

    Harper’s not crazy. 
    Crazy is just the front for corporate interests.

     

    Harper’s Neoconservatism: 
    This entire “hard right” movement is a crock.  It is not a religious evangelist movement, OR
    a moral movement.

     

    It is a corporate movement.

     
     

  23. What a charmingly biting portrait of a Rottweiler in need of a trainer….but then, again, we forgot there’s a wonderfully brilliant portrait of that famous dominatrix Maggie Thatcher in the office….ah…the troglodytes on the Hill…having a tea party at our expense, eh?!!

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