Exit John Baird, stage right

Paul Wells on the departure of John Baird from the world stage

From left, U.S. Naval Attache, Capt. Charles J. Cassidy, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, and Secretary of State John Kerry, walk after placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Canada, Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014. (Carolyn Kaster, Pool, AP Photo)

From left, U.S. Naval Attache, Capt. Charles J. Cassidy, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, and Secretary of State John Kerry, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa,  Oct. 28, 2014. (Carolyn Kaster, Pool, AP Photo)

This is the third time Stephen Harper has found himself suddenly short a foreign minister and the first time it has mattered. On May 26, 2008, Maxime Bernier resigned the portfolio after he left confidential documents at a girlfriend’s house, and the capital was briefly awash in bad puns about “leaky briefs.” In the federal election of May 2, 2011, Lawrence Cannon lost his seat to a rookie New Democrat. Now John Baird.

But Bernier was — is — a libertarian who was convinced that if governments talk to one another they will find new things to do when they shouldn’t be doing much of anything, so he was never entirely sure Canada should have a foreign minister and a little put out that it apparently had to be him. And Cannon took no joy in a job that pushed his limited interpersonal skills beyond their natural breaking point. (“Lawrence?” a senior veteran of Quebec provincial politics told me while Cannon’s elevation to Fort Pearson was still just a rumour. “Lawrence likes to go home to the riding on weekends.” And indeed it was so: I know one person who had a front-row seat at Canada’s failed bid for a United Nations Security Council seat who insists that what broke the deal wasn’t Canada’s relatively isolated stance on Israel or any other question of principle, it was Cannon’s insistence that as a minister, he should not be reduced to schmoozing mere ambassadors at the United Nations. Canada’s competitors were more pragmatic, and Canada’s natural advantage, only an hour’s flight from the UN, was eliminated.

Baird, on the other hand, has been an absolute breath of fresh air. Of course he’s been a conservative (as opposed to merely a Conservative) foreign minister, so DFAIT lifers Paul Heinbecker and Jeremy Kinsman would reliably get the vapours at the mention of his name. He sold embassies and official residences. He informed DFAT-D (as the newly renamed ministry came to be called) envoys that they would have no more space in their cubicles in Ankara or Canberra than their counterparts in Ottawa were permitted. He stuck close to talking points, which could make him maddeningly terse: following him around central Europe last April, I passed a dejected reporter for the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita leaving the Canadian embassy in Warsaw. “They gave me 20 minutes for an interview,” my Polish colleague said. “When I ran out of questions, we still had eight minutes left.”


John Geddes: Baird shouted a lot, but had a subtler side, too

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: A man for all questions

But Baird travelled constantly, met everyone who’d talk to him, kept his eyes open, and radically expanded the breadth and complexity of the Harper government’s foreign policy. When the Conservatives were elected in 2006, they acted as if Canada’s relations with the world could be reduced to the anglosphere (friendly governments in the U.S. and Australia, the palatable Tony Blair in London) plus Israel. When those governments changed, usually for the worse from Harper’s perspective, Ottawa’s instinct was usually to turtle and blame the stupid world.

But Baird was comfortable with the notion of a world in which more than six countries matter, and he built functional relationships with globally middleweight but regionally influential powers like Turkey, Indonesia, Vietnam and Nigeria. He watched, learned, and amended his opinions: he walked into the gig with the Euroskeptic positions one usually picks up by reading The Spectator, but in Warsaw he amazed me by calling the European Union “a force for good.” He told Harper not to bother going back to China before Harper ratified the trade and investment “FIPPA” that had sat on Harper’s desk, collecting dust, for a year. Eventually Harper relented. And when Harper inaugurated his involvement in the Russia-Ukraine conflict with a crybabyish insistence that New Democrats and Liberals didn’t deserve to soil a government expedition to Kyiv, Baird ostentatiously brought opposition critics with him on foreign trips for months after.

He has been, in other words, willing to exercise the “challenge function” (traditionally reserved for senior bureaucrats, but these days Harper should take it where he can get it) without which a government always risks becoming a complacent echo chamber. And when he was done challenging he has been faithful and boisterous in his execution of Harper’s governing philosophy. So he’s one of the few ministers who extends and usefully refines Harper’s influence, rather than simply parroting his lines.

In November I heard second-hand that Baird was getting ready to step away from federal politics, convinced Harper could not win another majority. I didn’t follow up with Baird, so take that as hearsay. Some reports tonight suggest substantive differences with Harper over Russia, but note those rumours cast Baird in relatively heroic light. We’ll find out more anon. Ed Fast, who replaces Baird on an interim basis, is attentive to the details of his files, but I’ve seen no evidence that he has Baird’s imagination. The Harper PMO’s reflex in the aftermath of a surprise is to look for somebody like that. It’s too bad.


In 2012, Baird sat down with Paul Wells to discuss his work and reputation: 


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Exit John Baird, stage right

  1. He will be fine. A revival of Foghorn Leghorn is in the works.

  2. If John Baird is the shiniest example of standing up to Stephen Harper, this government is an even bigger dictatorship than I imagined. And Mr. Wells, your attempt to paint Canada’s foreign relations under the Harper Conservatives as nuanced is undermined by every single thing they do and don’t do.

  3. Sounds like Harp [and the rest of them] were expecting to find a white male christian world at the top…..a height-of-the-British-Empire world…a 50’s fantasy…only to discover that’s long gone.

    Anyway, assuming no illness is involved, he has catapulted himself from Nepean into possible global levels….so he’s done alright for himself.

  4. Sounds like just about every reporter and pundit in Ottawa had heard this rumour. Hardly hearsay when it has 15 sources and the PMO was forced to deny it and we know how reliable they are. It should have been reported with the denial.
    Whole episode shows a lot about the Parl Press Gallery.
    They know a lot more, but we the citizens outside the bubble will likely never hear it.
    OK folks back to scrums, photo ops, talking points, and staged announcements. Nothing to see here.

  5. Baird was one of the most irritating players on Harper’s team, yet in any honest assessment, he is also one you would like on your team. Sure he stuck to his talking points, but he never fell into either the childish behaviour of Poilievre, the nastiness of van Loan or the sliminess of Clement. He was consistently supportive of his leader and I think Wells has done as well as anyone at divining just how far a stretch it was for Baird at times. In any case, he loss is a serious issue for the Conservatives especially with Ontario swing voters.

    While I would guess that Harper’s considerable political skills will allow him to win another term, his accumulative negatives preclude another majority. Harper will walk and I guess Baird has decided he does not have enough support within the party to make a run at the leadership in 2016. He has probably also decided he could never support Kenny or Moore.

  6. basile2013 posted this this morning in the Globe and Mail. It reveals a record that may explain Baird’s decision to leave federal politics.

    And the timing of his decision may be another hint that an election in March or April is likely.

    John Baird has been a complete failure as a Foreign Affairs minister.
    • He got Canada kicked off the UN Security Council.
    • He lost Canada’s North Pole bid because he didn’t submit the claim within the 10-yr deadline.
    • He got our military kicked out of the UAE.
    • He lost most of Canada’s $563M in exports to Russia after picking a fight with them over Ukraine.
    • He was the one to approve use of infrastructure funds for Clement’s $50M gazebos during the G8.
    • He bought $400 gold-embossed business cards without even the word ‘Canada’ on them.
    • He won’t let the International Criminal Court investigate Israel for war crimes.
    • He has picked fights with just about every foreign country on behalf of Israel.
    • Canada’s international reputation has gone down the tubes since 2006: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canada-s-reputation-worsens-global-poll-1.892750
    • He cut off Canada’s diplomatic relationship with Iran when other countries were holding talks with them. Even the USA and UK still have embassies, but Baird closed ours.
    • He personally defended Nigel Wright’s business deals worth millions with the Harper gov’t (Barrick Gold and Lockheed Martin), and he took SNC Lavalin and oil execs on a gov’t plane to Libya just after the war there.
    • He gave gave $1-million in federal money to a social hall project submitted by his personal rabbi, whom he also takes with him on every trip to Israel.
    • He defended his own Parliamentary Secretary for having an illicit affair with a Chinese spy.
    • He denied as “pure speculation” reports that Harper’s bodyguard was to be made ambassador to Jordan, just before it happened.
    • He called the 2013 election in Iran “meaningless”, despite the fact that non-Conservative voters in his own west Ottawa riding were targets of fraudulent robocalls in the 2011 election.

    • Well, let’s see. 1 and 3 happened before he was foreign minister; 5 shows a shaky understanding of Treasury Board procedure; 6 is not true; the notion embodied in 4 — that anybody but Russia picked this fight — is deeply offensive; and I stopped there.

      • Well, for the moment 2, 7,8,9 and … are evident facts. You should not begin replying if you have no explanation; stopping where you like, makes it look even more miserable.

      • And you still don’t know how to dress or act.

  7. hate to say it but this goofball will likely be back to run for party leader when harper exits

    why not make a little dough and take some time to build a network in the meantime.

  8. He was nothing more than a “yes man” for Harper and a lapdog for the USA – the stench will remain long after he is gone.

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