“That, for me, was a very clear indication of the immaturity, the inexperience, he brought to public life – this hard-edged-certainty view of the world,” recalls David McGuinty, a Liberal MP from Ottawa who, along with his brother Dalton, now Ontario’s premier, has sparred with Mr. Baird for years.
Mr. McGuinty says he was part of a “conflict machine,” a new style of politics that relied on provocation to motivate supporters and win headlines: “John was always very, very good at generating conflict.”
Too good, at times. In the 2002 race to succeed Mr. Harris, he ran the campaign of friend and future federal finance minister Jim Flaherty with gusto, portraying frontrunner Ernie Eves as wishy-washy – even going so far as to dress up someone as a waffle to lampoon him.
He still maintains he was right – “I don’t know anybody who said that was actually inaccurate” – but paid a price: Upon winning, Mr. Eves promptly handed Mr. Baird a demotion to associate minister of francophone affairs or, he recalls ruefully, “associate minister of F.A., as the premier-designate called it.”
Mr. Baird was devastated. Mr. Eves later bumped him back to a full cabinet post, but he soon concluded his party was just playing out the string. The following year it was back in opposition, which may seem an appealing prospect to a political jouster, but “I didn’t like it at all. I found it very negative. It just wasn’t very fulfilling.”
And by then, he had a new cause: Before the election, he’d become the first of his province’s ministers to endorse Stephen Harper as leader of the new, merged Conservative Party. A true prize for the former Reformer and Canadian Alliance leader, who needed support in crucial Ontario, Mr. Baird became his campaign co-chair, first for the leadership and then for the 2004 election campaign.
The following year, when another federal campaign began, he quit provincial politics to run with Mr. Harper, and soon was a cabinet minister once again, in his home town.
Mr. Foreign Affairs: a sense of humour, except about the job
Six years have gone by, and finds today’s John Baird a traditionalist with a strain of Ottawa Valley old loyalist Tory – he insists that a portrait of the Queen hang in the Foreign Affairs department’s lobby. An art lover, he also asked for a Cornelius Krieghoff canvas to adorn his office and, ever the prankster, does an impression of Jean Chrétien when explaining that the former PM had the same Krieghoff on his wall at 24 Sussex.
During caucus meetings, he has been known to stand, grin and wave when his name is mentioned. But as foreign minister, he has been serious about asserting his presence.
He made his first trip abroad after a month on the job, visiting a war zone in eastern Libya and urging the rebels to keep fighting. Four months later, he was back, this time with corporate executives looking to do business with the triumphant new regime.
At multinational meetings, he has stubbornly blocked summit communiqués that cut references to rights issues he held dear, and gave himself an exemption from sanctions against Myanmar so he could fly there to encourage nascent reforms. In February, he used his close relationship with China’s foreign minister to seal a deal to sell that country uranium.
He’s not only willing to trumpet unabashedly-Tory rhetoric on the world stage, to play up the fighter-bombers of the Royal Canadian Air Force, back Israel to the hilt and blast Iran. He’s also prepared to look uncouth to prod Canadian business deals abroad, because hard-boiled economic interests are job one.
He has loudly claimed that Ottawa bases foreign policy on Canadian values, but what’s really new is that it’s not the honest-broker, peacekeeper values of Pearsonian tradition. Even stranger, he admits that part of his government’s policy is to ask what’s in it for Canada. He doesn’t mind if others think he’s too coarse for diplomatic sensitivities. Sometimes, he revels in it.
Still he has enough confidence to bring nuance and flexibility to a party agenda sometimes laden with muscular bluster. He opened the door to engaging with Myanmar, once hated by Harper Tories, and followed through as reforms there materialized. He played point in Ottawa's shift toward sharp criticism of Sri Lanka's human-rights record, to the delight of Canada's politically weighty Tamil community.
The current trip – today he leaves Beirut for Jordan where he will visit Syrians who have fled the violence in their homeland – underlines another characteristic: He’s a bundle of energy, travelling the world and often running his department from the road.
At home, he is one of Mr. Harper’s more adept political performers – perhaps his first foreign minister to be firing on all cylinders and unmatched in the degree of confidence the Prime Minister has in him.