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John Baird's Canada: No longer content to 'go along just to get along' Add to ...

In his early days in office, Mr. Harper’s focus on domestic affairs meant that he kept Peter Mackay, his initial choice, on a tight rein. Mr. Mackay was followed by Maxime Bernier, who crashed, David Emerson, who soon left, and Lawrence Cannon, who brought stability for 21/2 years, but had neither the drive nor the sympatico with the PM to make a big mark.

Now, however, Foreign Affairs is led by a player, and has influence. Other governments pay attention.

One visiting European official said that, because his country now believes Canada finally has a foreign minister with the ear of the prime minister, it wants to do business with him. Sweden’s globetrotting foreign minister, Carl Bildt, remarked during his mid-May stop in Ottawa that he has already run across Mr. Baird many times in capitals around the world. “That indicates an ambitious approach,” he said.

Foreign ministers such as Britain’s William Hague, Hillary Clinton of the U.S., and Mexico’s Patricia Espinoza get along with Mr. Baird, apparently charmed by his irreverent wit. “He does a very lousy Australian accent,” jokes Australia’s foreign minister (and former PM), Kevin Rudd.

“In the business of diplomacy, being personable is a decided advantage. Often people get caught up in the formality of their positions,” Mr. Rudd says from Canberra. “One of his great strengths is to walk into a room and to befriend people very quickly.”

The lingering doubts: His combative nature still on view

Many Canadians still conjure an image of John Baird as the glaring hit man, firing at opponents, but a closer look reveals that the scowl usually breaks into a smirk. “He’s got a shtick now,” says friend Jaime Watt, once a key strategist for Mike Harris.

The old Baird persona still flares up in the Commons at times, but his demeanour outside Parliament can be surprisingly friendly – one New Democrat MP calls him “Jekyll and Hyde.” (If he seems affected by the heat of the Commons battle, aides have been known to put a picture of his late cat, Thatcher, in his briefing book to calm him down.)

Mr. Watt says people tend to overlook Mr. Baird’s political talent: He doesn’t need the crib sheets other ministers rely on. Each question gets a different answer. “He’s a master of assessing the situation, and figuring out the needed response,” Mr. Watt says. It’s probably why he often serves as the PM’s stand-in when Mr. Harper is not in the Commons.

He also has personal drive. Single, with reading and spending time with friends his only hobbies, he considers politics his life. Aides have to keep up with his hours – and his discipline. In 1996, a fast-food habit saw him bloat to 240 pounds, he says. “If you’d slit my wrists, the Swiss Chalet sauce would have come out.” So he became a “pescatarian” – a fish-eating vegetarian – and lost 50 pounds in three months. “I’m very focused.”

Which may be why Mr. Harper repeatedly turns to Mr. Baird to get a job done, initially making him treasury board minister to stickhandle the Conservatives’ first legislation, the Accountability Act – a high-profile election commitment – and rewire its campaign promises to free the government from the more onerous of transparency requirements.

Ten months later, when the Liberals geared up to campaign on climate change, Mr. Baird became environment minister – tasked with reducing the government’s weakness on the issue. He attacked then-leader Stéphane Dion’s carbon-tax proposals as costly and ineffective, and floated the Conservatives’ own tough proposals for regulating emissions – since abandoned.

When economic stimulus was the issue in 2008, he was put in charge of infrastructure. Then he served as house leader for Mr. Harper’s tumultuous last six months in minority.

Although his relationship with the PM is mostly business, Mr. Baird has become a friend of Mr. Harper’s wife, Laureen, squiring her to events and parties and sharing a fondness for felines. Having not had a cat since 2009, when Thatcher died at 16, he was about to adopt Stanley, a stray Mrs. Harper had taken in, after last year’s election. But she suggested that might not be such a great idea, given all the travel in his future – the first hint of the task that lay ahead

Finally enjoying a majority mandate, the Conservatives not only could afford to look abroad; a sputtering global economy and a power shift made doing so imperative.

So after five years of Mr. Harper touting that Canada was “back” on the world stage, it has fallen to Mr. Baird to flesh out what that really means: opinionated, pro-military and, while still close to such old allies as Britain, Australia and the U.S., actively seeking relationships with China, India and many other emerging powers to further Canada’s fast-shifting economic interests.

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