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The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - John Capobianco, Marit Stiles and Richard Mahoney - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.





In a move that has surprised many an Ottawa pundit, John Baird has resigned from his cabinet post as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and announced he will not run again for the CPC in this year's election. 

 


John Capobianco:

It is a rare occurrence in politics when you see politicians from all sides of the House praise a retiring individual at the level they did Tuesday in honouring John Baird.

The former Foreign Affairs Minister announced he was leaving politics and it was/is significant news. Significant not because an MP or a Minister decided to step down—it was significant because it was John Baird.

I have had the pleasure of knowing John "Rusty" Baird since the days of PC youth politics. In fact, John  — or Rusty, as he was fondly known as then  — was the President of the Ontario PC Youth Association (OPCYA) in 1988 and I served as the 9th Vice President on his executive. He left the position in 1990 and I took over as President. I knew then that John had a passion for politics and it never abated.

No question this is a loss to the PM and this government, but I submit it is more of a loss to Canada and, indeed, internationally. He served every post he has held — both provincially and federally — with the utmost enthusiasm and professionalism. His last post as Foreign Affairs Minister was truly his best. He will be missed around the House for sure.

 

Richard Mahoney:

I agree with John — John Baird's announcement this week is a huge event in Canadian political circles. I have known John Baird since his days in the Harris government. A confession: I have come to quite like John.

As he said in his remarks announcing his resignation, he is very partisan. When was working with ONW supremo Sue Kelley on TVO's Studio Two public affairs program, I would frequently get agitated when John would come on with his props and partisan attacks. Often, these were over the top, such as when, as Minister Community and Social Services in the Harris government, he came on the program with a bag of syringes, to highlight the idea that the Harris government was cutting off welfare for Ontario's drug addicts — I thought that was shameful. So, too, did John Baird, as I believe he came to regret that approach. He grew in stature in Ottawa, eventually becoming our Foreign Affairs Minister.

It doesn't get much more senior than that. If you had told John Baird or anyone else 10 years ago that he would rise to that job, you would have been laughed out of the room. That said, he did rise to that job, and leaves politics on top and in a great position to move into the next stage of his career. Not bad for a kid from Nepean.

 

Marit Stiles:

Well, for once I agree with both Richard and John! At least inasmuch as John Baird's resignation is a big political event.

I remember Mr. Baird from his days in the Harris Government. Even at the height of some of his most partisan and outrageous defences of that government, he found friends on the “other side”, including some New Democrat MPPs. In fact, I think he was the only Harris Minister I ever saw sidle over to the “Left Wing”.

And his rise to the top of government and politics is a remarkable one. He leaves at a relatively young age but also with 20 years of experience, which should set him nicely for the expected move to the private sector.

His legacy? Well, that's another matter. Before we get to that I'll note that he played a very key role for the Prime Minister. He was the guy who came in to fix things. Or at least “fix” the problems as defined by Harper.

Not everyone will agree with his fixes (I for one, do not) but it's important to note that his resignation could have a massive impact on PM Harper and his government heading into a critical election.

 

John Capobianco:

So John Baird leaves fairly big shoes to fill in Foreign Affairs, especially at this crucial time with what is taking place in the Middle East, Russia, and with ISIS. But as Marit correctly mentions, John was also a "fixer" for the PM and this government, often put in to defend a minister or an issue that was going sideways.

The decision by the PM on who should fill this critical cabinet spot will not be an easy one, which is why he appointed Ed Fast as the Interim Minister of Foreign Affairs — he needs to think this through properly.

However, the larger hole to fill is that of the "fixer", and you can’t "appoint" for that post — it has to come naturally to someone who has the talent, skill and partisanship of one such as John Baird.

 

Richard Mahoney:

Ok, I think we need to stop ourselves before we go too far in praising Caesar here. John is right to say he will be difficult to replace. But let's be frank here: Stephen Harper runs the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and foreign affairs policy. There isn't much room for some new person to come in and chart out a new course. That course is set, and it isn't changing.

John and Marit are also right — this leaves a big hole in the Harper government in the run up to an election. There is no successor to John Baird in the category of the Prime Minister’s designated political fixer. In 2007-2008, when it looked like Stephen Harper had miscalculated and spent too much effort denying climate change, when the public was beginning to get concerned, he quickly turned to Baird. Harper made him Environment Minister, and the government went from denying the existence of climate change to making it the greatest policy challenge of our time.

As public concern moved onto the economic challenges faced by a shrinking economy and federal deficits, Baird moved on, too. The government never moved on environment and climate change. But Baird did get the PM out of that hole.

There isn't another Minister the PM trusts and can turn to with the same degree of confidence he clearly had in John Baird. John will be off somewhere in the private sector, probably doing quite well. This can't have been a great day for Stephen Harper. Not a bad day for John Baird, though.

 

Marit Stiles:

He'll find a home somewhere no doubt but for how long? Unusual to see political animals like that disappear into the private sector entirely. I think it's fair to speculate that there are many reasons for Baird's exit. Leaving at a “high point” also allows him the ability to come back, perhaps for a leadership run.

His timing is very interesting indeed. On the brink of a federal election, Harper loses one of his right hand men. His decision to go could be read as jumping ship. And there are those who point to the fact he is departing in time to still qualify for the “pension at 55” rule (MPs elected or re-elected in 2015 won't qualify till 65 under new rules).

I'll stop speculating now and comment on his tenure as Foreign Affairs Minister: under his watch, Canada sunk to new lows. He was notorious for failing to take the advice of staff at foreign affairs, and I believe to the great detriment of Canada's international reputation.

Who knows whether this was all Stephen Harper's doing and Baird was just a good foot soldier... but the fact is he was the Minister and his legacy was not all golden.

He'll now ride off into the sunset and spend a few years reaping the private sector rewards of years spent in cabinet, but the questions are “will he be back” and “do we want him?”

About The Salon

Richard Mahoney is a former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin; Marit Stiles is a federal and Ontario NDP strategist; and John Capobianco is a former CPC candidate and long-time party activist in both the federal and Ontario Conservative parties
Posted date : January 28, 2015

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