Parliament's fate rests in the hands of John Baird

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The Gazette, Monday, August 9, 2010

John Baird was seriously contemplating a glass of white wine a couple of weeks ago when he waved a friend over to his booth in the bar of Hy's, the Ottawa watering hole where the political class of all persuasions check their weapons at the door.

"Whaddya hear?" he asked.

"Summer shuffle," he was told, "at least a mini-shuffle, to replace Jay Hill."

Several cabinet ministers had been called in by the prime minister in recent weeks, to be asked by Stephen Harper if they planned to run in the next election, and if not, to step aside.

Hill was the only one who 'fessed up, and so he stepped down as House leader, a big role and responsibility in a minority House.

"You wouldn't be the next House leader would you?" Baird was asked.

"I'm only here to serve," he replied. "Whatever the boss asks me to do."

Baird, known as Rusty since his Tory Youth days, has been Stephen Harper's go-to guy on hot files on several occasions. First, as president of the Treasury Board, where he delivered the Federal Accountability Act, one of the Conservatives' five priorities in the 2006 campaign. Then, coming on to relieve Rona Ambrose at Environment, after she'd been mau-maued by stakeholders on climate change. They found out that Baird pushed back.

Finally, at Transport, perhaps the most complex line department in the federal government, Baird's real job was to shovel infrastructure money out the door.

And now, Baird has indeed become House leader, in Friday's mini-shuffle, which saw Chuck Strahl replace him at Transport, with John Duncan succeeding Strahl at Indian and Northern Affairs.

That was all of a Friday morning at Rideau Hall. Talk of a larger shuffle turned out to be so much media speculation and wishful thinking by MPs who didn't get the big phone call.

Both other moves were necessitated by Baird's, and both make a certain amount of sense. Strahl, one of the most civilized men in the House, was thought to have the inside track on the House leader's role. But there's a bunch of hot west-coast issues in transport, from contentious northern pipeline projects to tanker shipping in Vancouver harbour. As a British Columbia minister, he'll bring some local knowledge.

Duncan had been Strahl's understudy at Indian Affairs, which means he doesn't need to read up on files in a department in which the minister is never more than one sentence away from offending some-one's delicate sensibilities.

Moreover, Duncan is from Vancouver Island and as such maintains BC's strength in cabinet, replacing Hill on the front bench. Not to be overlooked is that Duncan faces a hot race with the NDP in the next election, and a cabinet seat will give him some additional visibility at home.

But it's the move of Baird, from a job with a sprawling department to one with no department at all, that's the key one, as Harper made clear standing at the front door of Rideau Hall.

"I have given John a very clear mandate," Harper said, "to make Parliament work. To make sure we stay the course at this time of global uncertainty."

In other words, there will be no fall election, at least not one called by the government.

In case anyone missed this point, Harper began by saying Canada "cannot afford to interrupt this (fragile) recovery with an unnecessary election."

It was the second day in a row, following his remarks to the summer Tory caucus, that Harper's message track was on the economy. And it was the first time in weeks, since the G-20 and royal visit, that he had any message at all. The fuss over the census, and the hit Harper took on trust in summer polls, is a classic case of what happens to a government when the PM goes off the air or on vacation, or both.

But with Baird, Harper is sending a message to the opposition parties. No one reads the mood of the House better than Baird -he can be either an attack dog or a statesman, depending on the day of the week. The fate of this House could hinge on which Rusty Baird shows up.

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