Those who fear that the government has lurched to one side point to Mr. Baird’s staunchly pro-Israel views and the fact he spent five days there in January, but cancelled a half-day stop in neighbouring Jordan.
“There’s no doubt,” he replies with a shrug, “that on a number of files we’re taking a different foreign-policy stance than has been traditionally. But that’s ... why we have an elected government.
“I think the Prime Minister has brought a different way of doing things, and I’m certainly in sync with that.”
But the tension between the minister and his diplomats goes beyond policy. He has shown a whiff of relish in clipping their lifestyle, consigning them to smaller residences and less entertaining. He has ordered embassies to stop serving alcohol except at official functions. When he visited Paris, Canada’s ambassador to France, Marc Lortie – a Baird fan – had to buy him a glass of wine.
Older diplomats are said to be especially piqued when Mr. Baird sets aside traditional Canadian positions, but some younger ones appear to like a minister who knows what he wants.
Someone close to him says Mr. Baird is mystified by officials who keep making proposals that he has already rejected. “He’ll say, ‘I’ve told them 17 times, I’m not doing this.’ ... They’ll say, ‘Minister, people won’t like this.’ And he’ll say, ‘That’s the point.’”
Australia’s Mr. Rudd says foreign ministers can expect such push-back because diplomats feel they’re paid to protect relationships. “Often the temptation, driven by the advice of professional foreign ministries, is if it’s going to cause offence to any other government, then give up and run away.
“I don’t think that’s ever been my approach, and I don’t think it’s ever been John’s approach either.”
As for dealing with his peers, Mr. Rudd says he has yet to see Mr. Baird pick a fight, but he will press a point. At last September’s meeting of Commonwealth foreign ministers, chaired by Mr. Rudd, Mr. Baird pressed for sections on gay rights and blocked a draft statement because a section opposing forced marriage for young girls had been cut.
“John was forthright, clear, concise in explaining his view, but ... many of the African foreign ministers had a different view,” Mr. Rudd recalls. “To advance an argument, which sometimes needed to be advanced sharply, you need somebody who’s got the policy and the personality predisposition to do it. He has that.”
Mr. Baird admits that most of his colleagues would be happier if he’d “just shut up,” such as when he pushed to have the Commonwealth look into Sri Lanka’s record on human rights.
“Sometimes it’s a bit uncouth ... a bit unpleasant, to say, ‘There are these charges of war crimes, should we look into it?’ Some people would say, ‘Well, maybe do it quietly.’ Well – no.”
Mr. Rudd praises his Canadian counterpart as the kind of foreign minister who saves diplomacy from “evaporating into a sea of grey” caused by grinding bureaucracy. “You do need people that stand out. And I believe John fits into that category.”
The road ahead: Concern that he’s not in for the long haul
But does he really fit in and, if so, for how long?
Just as he seems to be finding his comfort zone, some of Mr. Baird’s political friends fear that Mr. Harper will soon tap him to “fix” another portfolio. According to one, this job is the “pinnacle” for a career politician who has no economic background and shown no sign he’d ever run for the party’s leadership. And if he has any plans for life after politics, Mr. Baird declines to discuss them.
In a strange way, he seems to have come full circle.
Down the hall, one of his aides now has the office he occupied almost 20 years ago – a fake nameplate reads “Rusty Baird” – and by sheer coincidence the main telephone number is the same one he answered at 17 when he started working for Perrin Beatty in defence.
Rusty’s old mentor certainly feels he has found a good fit.
Kay Stanley stays in touch, sending kudos by e-mail – except when he goes over the top. She says she doesn’t recognize the more partisan, aggressive John Baird, and wasn’t always crazy about the Harris government, which she feels knocked her former student a little off centre.
After she left teaching, Ms. Stanley had a remarkable second career as a senior federal bureaucrat. So she knows ministers, and says that, when young, Mr. Baird was curious, quick and “always a happy warrior,” all valuable qualities for a foreign minister, especially required to be an agent of change.
“He can walk into a hostile room and still treat people with respect.”As far as she is concerned, he has not only matured; “he’s in the right place now.”