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Defuser-in-chief: Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 30, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Defuser-in-chief: Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 30, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Lawrence Martin

Testing John Baird, the Tories' artful dodger Add to ...

If you were picking the most valuable player on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s front bench, you wouldn’t be far off in pointing to John Baird, the Foreign Affairs Minister. A close second is Jim Flaherty, the Finance Minister. Rounding out the top group are Heritage Minister James Moore and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

What gives Mr. Baird special status is his effectiveness in the role of the government’s defuser-in-chief. He’s the dean of damage control, the team’s most artful dodger. Every government needs one of these guys. Under the Chrétien Liberals, it was Herb Gray. The Gray Fog, as he was called, gave such plodding indecipherable responses to questions that he left everyone in a state of semi-consciousness.

Mr. Baird uses a different technique – the court jester. With quips and merriment and outrageous bafflegab, he makes light of everything. When the going gets tough, the PM looks over to Bairdsie. The minister dons his dancing slippers, does his array of pirouettes and glissades, and Bob’s your uncle. If you can leave ’em laughing, you win every time.

As environment minister, Mr. Baird won multiple fossil awards at climate summits but deflected criticism so well that damage to the government’s image was kept to a minimum. And there are few limits to his hyperbole. As the minister in charge of accountability, he left everyone rolling in the aisles with his claim that this government was the most open and transparent in history.

His latest act of levity came a few days ago with the news that, contrary to government policy, he had ordered expensive gold-embossed business cards. It was a minor infraction, and we all knew Bairdsie would blow it off in no time. He did so by pointing out how the Liberals were once the party that debated the great issues of our time. Now, he said, they’re reduced to getting all worked up over $425 worth of business cards.

Even better has been Mr. Baird’s toying with besieged minister Tony Clement, the central figure in the G8 spending boondoggle. Instead of having Mr. Clement answer questions, the PM has had Mr. Baird stand in Mr. Clement’s place to try to fend off the attacks. So, on the gold-card question, Mr. Baird turned the tables, telling a highly amused chamber that he wished Mr. Clement were in the House so he could stand in his place and answer questions for him.

Thus far, the opposition parties have been frustrated in their efforts to defrock the clown prince. But with Clementgate, the opportunity may be at hand. A $50-million political slush fund should be no laughing matter, not even for Mr. Baird. And as minister of transportation, infrastructure and communities during the time in question, Mr. Baird was the one who gave the green light to Mr. Clement to shower his Muskoka riding with taxpayer money slated to be used for border infrastructure projects.

The Conservatives assumed this story would be forgotten by now. But the media have stayed with it and, along with the opposition parties, they’ve created enough of a stir that Mr. Clement will appear before a parliamentary committee to answer questions. If he doesn’t have good answers, there’ll be demands, as there should be, for his head.

Mr. Baird has yet to be pressed for details on his role in the boondoggle, but that could come. One reason the PM may be protecting Mr. Clement is that, if he falls, a domino effect may ensue. Fingers will start pointing at the minister who approved the spending.

In such a scenario, Mr. Baird will be called on to do a degree of artful dodging that even he might not be capable of. The Conservatives can afford to have Mr. Clement discharged, but taking down their court jester wouldn’t be funny at all.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this article published online and in Tuesday's newspaper incorrectly stated that John Baird was still president of the Treasury Board when he approved G8-related spending in the riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka. John Baird was then the minister of transportation, infrastructure and communities. This version has been corrected.

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