Yesterday, foreign affairs minister John Baird announced his retirement from politics. To many—and not only among conservatives—this was sad news for apparently Baird was genuinely liked by his colleagues in all parties and by many ordinary Canadians who appreciated his 20 years of public service.
I first began paying attention to 45-year-old John Russell Baird (called “Rusty” by those who knew him well) after attending Question Period at Queen’s Park when he was serving as an MPP in the Progressive Conservative opposition. His performance that day was political theatre at its best.
Regardless of one’s political point of view, I think most would have appreciated the on-point banter between Baird and the late NDP MPP Peter Kormos. Both men were top-notch parliamentarians and played off one another to great effect.
When commenting on the death of Kormos, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative leader of the time Tim Hudak said:
Peter was one of those rare parliamentarians who simply dropped the partisanship at the door on the way out of Queen’s Park at the end of the day. He was friendly, funny, compassionate and thoughtful.”
Substitute John’s name for Peter’s and “Ottawa” for “Queen’s Park” in that quote, and one would also have a pretty accurate reflection of John Baird.
Sure Baird was hyper-partisan at times—particularly in his early days at Queen’s Park—but managed to mellow with experience as he himself explained during his farewell address in the House on Tuesday:
I was perhaps just a little naive, driven by ideology, defined by partisanship, at the age of 25. I quickly learned, though, to make a difference, to really make a difference, you can’t be defined by partisanship, nor by ideology. You need instead to be defined by your values.”
Likability, though, was only one of Baird’s qualities. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s go-to guy—some like to say the PM’s attack dog—Baird effectively handled some of the toughest files the Conservatives have dealt with. We saw that with his management of the Federal Accountability Act, and during his tenures as Treasury Board president and environment minister; and when, as transport minister, he managed the spending of billions of dollars of stimulus money in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, with little or no hint of scandal.
Baird, though, will probably be remembered best for his role as foreign minister. I was especially pleased that he took such an unambiguous stand on many international issues, especially those related to Canada’s relationship to Israel and Ukraine.
When Baird was heckled and had eggs and shoes thrown at him by Palestinian protesters during a visit to the West Bank, some Canadian progressives blamed him for being too one-sided towards Israel.
They complained Canada had formerly—under Liberal governments, I suppose—been more balanced, a sort of honest broker on Middle East affairs. Apparently, they forget that John Manley, while serving as foreign minister in a Jean Chrétien government, “was burned in effigy near the West Bank city of Nablus on Wednesday [17 Jan 2001] in protest of his offer to accept Palestinian refugees as part of a Middle East peace plan,” according to a 19 Jan. 2001 report in the Ottawa Citizen.
A lot of the criticism Baird receives comes from those—inside the foreign ministry and elsewhere—who define diplomacy as sitting safely on the fence and never giving offence even to foreign tyrants or to those who seek to terrorize us. And among his critics are those who seem to believe it’s okay for the UN to elect countries like China, Cuba, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to its Human Rights Council even though those countries have deplorable human rights records, and for the UN to wage a propaganda war against Israel.
Despite the backbiting from his foreign affairs staff—a group that seems mainly interested in palatial foreign digs, perks of their jobs and milquetoast diplomacy—Baird has apparently earned the respect of many of his peers abroad.
At one point I had hoped he might have come back to Ontario politics to run for the leadership of the PC party, but that now seems out of the question. He deserves a try at the private sector, much as the late Jim Flaherty had hoped to do. And most expect him to do well there.
I applaud John Baird for his 20 years of public service and wish him the very best in his future endeavours.