John Baird quit politics while he was ahead. He would never have become Conservative Party leader. He was foreign minister, about as important a portfolio as he would occupy. It wouldn't get any better.
Still, his resignation came as a surprise. Mr. Baird had been in and around politics from student days, as a proud ideological right-winger and a verbal brawler when the occasion demanded. He had served 10 years in provincial politics and almost a decade in Ottawa. He seemed like one of those political lifers, and then Tuesday morning he said he wanted to try something else. Good for him.
His departure weakens a cabinet of distinctly modest talents, and further shrinks the influence of the old Mike Harris Conservatives in what is essentially a modernized Reform Party government.
It was speculated that his departure will sting the Conservative government. Foreign ministers don't influence how people vote, outside their own ridings. Whoever voted for prime ministers Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney or Jean Chrétien, let alone Stephen Harper, because of the government's foreign minister? Prime ministers personify their parties; the ministers are supporting cast.
Mr. Baird leaves Parliament with many friends, being a hail-fellow-well-met kind of chap. Conservative backbenchers especially liked his leather-lunged approach to parliamentary exchanges. Indeed, he personified how the party expected its representatives to perform in the Commons.
They should give no quarter, be verbally abrasive if required, and resort to rhetorical fulminations when under assault.
Mr. Baird did not make Canadian foreign policy; he certainly was not a foreign policy expert or thinker. He executed foreign policy as conceived by the Prime Minister with whom he shared a common perspective on the world.
He leaves the foreign affairs ministry with morale at rock-bottom. Diplomats despaired at the idiosyncratic nature of the government's foreign policy, the selling of Canadian embassies abroad, the petty rules imposed on entertaining abroad, parties he organized for friends at Canadian missions, the rejection of speeches prepared by the department, but more than anything else the impulsive and ideological directives imposed, often on short notice, by the youthful enthusiasts in Mr. Baird's office.
But, of course, Mr. Baird and his staff would reply that the ministry remains full of Pearsonian internationalists more intent on saving the world and being nice to everyone than pursuing Canada's national interests. Many are the examples of this tension, but nowhere was this more evident than in the Middle East, where the government's absolute fidelity to every jot and tittle of Israel's behaviour – rewarded by a massive swing to the Conservatives among Jewish voters – drove seasoned diplomats to distraction.
Indeed, in every portfolio, it is hard to think of where Mr. Baird left an imprint, except stylistically. He executed the government's first major piece of legislation, the Accountability Act, the outline of which had figured in the Conservative platform as an antidote to alleged corruption under the Liberal government. It turned out to be a massive piece of legislation that spawned new agencies and expanded others, required new paperwork burdens and generally increased inefficiency in exchange for putative gains in probity.
At environment, like all holders of this portfolio, Mr. Baird ragged the puck, since the government had little interest in the file. There, his rhetorical abilities came in handy, when he blunted all attacks with fusillades of indignation.
Mr. Baird was given a somewhat longer leash as a minister than most in this highly centralized government, perhaps because he had earned respect as a faithful and effective public advocate for the government's positions. Still, his latitude was always limited, for such is the nature of this government, so it would have been difficult for him, as for any minister, to leave a substantive mark, as opposed to a rhetorical one. If the Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy is released from prison in Egypt, Mr. Baird can properly take some credit.
However, in Ottawa, as a senior minister, he had the latitude to influence major decisions. He quarrelled with the popular Ottawa mayor, Jim Watson, a Liberal. Recently, they had agreed to a verbal truce that had been holding.
A light rapid transit line. A convention centre. A modernization for the National Arts Centre. A reinvigorated National Capital Commission. Other capital projects. These were all impressive investments in the nation's capital.
An ugly design and a dreadful location for the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and a repair rather than a relocation for the Canada Science and Technology Museum were both blunders.