Though he had the demeanour of pit bull for those who knew him, John Baird had the heart of a teddy bear – a heart that was in the right place when it came to promoting Canada’s interests abroad, and also the best interests of the citizens of Ottawa-West Nepean and the City of Ottawa.
Australia’s former Labor prime minister and foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, said it best when he approached Mr. Baird last week to serve on his independent commission on multilateralism. In Mr. Rudd’s words, Mr. Baird was a “pragmatic internationalist” and someone who was committed to “practical problem-solving, rather than having a seminar on castles in the air.” Mr. Baird was also a consummate “realist” who wanted to see international institutions like the UN “function and function effectively.”
That was also true on the bureaucratic front. Mr. Baird’s push to integrate Canada’s development agency with the foreign affairs and international trade will stand as one of his lasting contributions to fixing the machinery of Canadian diplomacy.
What many Canadians may also not fully appreciate is that Mr. Baird was on excellent terms with his foreign minister counterparts, including Sweden’s former foreign minister, Carl Bildt, the foreign ministers of Poland and Mexico, and former U.S. secretary of state and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, with whom Mr. Baird enjoyed a warm and close relationship.
Mr. Baird’s surprise departure is one that leaves a big hole in the cabinet. He was by all accounts one of the Prime Minister’s most trusted cabinet colleagues, along with Jason Kenney, the late Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and, earlier, Jim Prentice, who is now premier of Alberta. Only one member of the original “inside quartet” is now left.
Mr. Baird was intrepid and indefatigable as Foreign Minister and even wore out junior members of his staff with his frequent jaunts around the globe to promote Canada’s interests. There is no question that his bluster, no-nonsense style, and occasionally pugnacious remarks jarred the tender sensitivities of many traditional foreign policy commentators, including some former diplomats. But, unlike several of his predecessors, Mr. Baird left a clear footprint for Canada on foreign policy.
There was little doubt about where he stood on the major issues of the day, such as Ukraine, human rights, Israel-Palestine, and Iran. You might not like or agree with his positions, but as the saying goes “It’s not easy putting yourself out there, but knowing where you stand beats not knowing.”
More often than not, Mr. Baird asserted Canada’s position and values forcefully, effectively and free of customary platitudes about “making a difference.” That was true when it came to dealing with Washington on a range of difficult files. It was also true when it came to defending the rights and freedoms of embattled Ukrainians. Mr. Baird was a combative but happy political warrior. But he was also adept at the inside game of foreign policy – knowing when to turn down the megaphone as evident from his soon-to-be successful effort to secure the release of the Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohammed Fahmy in Cairo.
Mr. Baird’s global leadership in countering sexual violence and gender discrimination will also be part of his legacy.
Highly personable and popular among MP’s on all sides of the House, even those who disagreed with his stance enjoyed Mr. Baird’s company.
Mr. Baird’s voice in cabinet for the national capital will be sorely missed. He delivered on several occasions whether for culture (museums), for infrastructure (light rail) or for a land grant for a new hospital. None of these things would have happened without his persistent championing.
Mr. Baird’s age, 45, belies his extensive cabinet experience and a significant record of achievement, beginning federally with ground breaking accountability legislation at Treasury Board; salvage at Environment; a major stimulus package at Transport during the financial meltdown, and culminating with a stellar four-year stint at Foreign Affairs. He delivered and could be counted on to deliver. That can be a prime minister’s best cabinet asset.
In an election year, foreign policy will be on the back burner unless there is a major global crisis that brings things to a boil. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will need a steady hand at the tiller and a foreign policy spokesperson who is gaff free. The upcoming G7 and G20 meetings will provide a speedy “read in” or crash course on the hot topics of the day – Islamic State and Ukraine. Those two will certainly dominate the G7.
It will be difficult for the Prime Minister to find someone of similar panache to fill Mr. Baird’s shoes. He thrived in the challenge. Ottawa could use more like him.