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Baird gets bully pulpit as new Tory House Leader

Government House Leader John Baird smiles alongside Chuck Strahl and John Duncan as they are sworn in to their new cabinet positions at Rideau Hall on Aug. 6, 2010.


Stephen Harper has used a minor cabinet shuffle to hand more responsibility for the daily hurly-burly of politics to the Tories' Mr. Fix-it, making John Baird the government's new point man in the Commons.

The 41-year-old MP - who's previously doused political fires at Environment Canada and cracked the whip to expedite stimulus projects - now becomes Government House Leader for the Conservatives. He replaces British Columbia's Jay Hill, who is retiring.

Other cabinet changes include shifting B.C. minister Chuck Strahl to Transport and Infrastructure to replace Mr. Baird - and elevating Vancouver Island Tory John Duncan to fill Mr. Strahl's shoes at Indian and Northern Affairs.

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On paper, Mr. Baird's new job means he is responsible for steering government legislation through a fractious minority Parliament. It requires procedural knowledge that not all MPs possess, but that he picked up doing the same task at Queen's Park.

It might appear to be a demotion for the Ottawa MP, a veteran of Ontario's Mike Harris era, except that the job gives him an even greater platform to serve as chief spokesman for the Harper Tories. This is a role the quick-witted and combative minister has increasingly played in the Commons.

NDP Pat Martin, who worked with Mr. Baird to pass federal accountability legislation in 2006, said the Tory MP is emerging as Mr. Harper's right-hand man.

"He seems to be the de-facto deputy prime minister in every respect," said Mr. Martin, adding that Mr. Baird seems to operate with a particularly sizable amount of authority to bargain on behalf of the Prime Minister. "He's somebody who actually has the authority to cut a deal."

These days, Mr. Harper seems more willing to relinquish the role as senior communicator on topics other than the economy and foreign affairs, leaving it to ministers to handle portfolio crises or the cut-and-thrust of daily battles with opposition parties. It's a change from earlier years, when he frequently intervened as spokesman on a multitude of files.

Ipsos pollster Darrell Bricker said handing the day-to-day political fencing to subordinates is smart for Mr. Harper - allowing him to appear more prime ministerial and above the fray as a possible election looms in early 2011.

"Particularly in new governments, the prime minister is really stuck out there [handling]all that's good and bad for the government, but after a while, people get a little tired of seeing their face," Mr. Bricker said. "To show more of a team actually benefits him going into an election."

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This summer, Mr. Harper has only taken four media questions in 31 days. He's refrained from wading into the controversy over changes to Canada's census, even after Industry Minister Tony Clement's handling of the file triggered the resignation of the head of Statistics Canada.

Mr. Baird shows a particular zest for verbal combat in the Commons.

In one memorable exchange last October, he gleefully dismissed New Democrat Leader Jack Layton's complaints about federal support for the harmonized sales tax, saying, "the leader of the NDP complaining about high taxes [is]like Colonel Sanders complaining about the rights of chickens."

In an interview, Mr. Baird said he relishes the great debates of Parliament and the orators who fought them, recalling Tory prime minister John Diefenbaker's sparring with Liberal Jack Pickersgill or John Crosbie's exchanges with George Baker.

He said too many parliamentarians stick to prepared texts today.

"[Liberal MP]Bob Rae has complained there are too many people just reading rather than engaging in debate. I think probably there's a bit of truth in that," Mr. Baird said. "There's a place for [skilled debate]and I think it's been declining over the last 50 years."

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