With John Baird, you know exactly where he’s coming from

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 16, 2012

One thing John Baird doesn’t do is diplomatic nuance, which is somehow refreshing in a foreign minister.

Sworn into his fifth cabinet post a year ago this week, Baird has moved Canada’s foreign policy decisively away from its honest-broker tradition to one that’s been called “values-based.” Or as he put it himself, sitting in his fourth-floor Centre Block office early Monday evening, “a principles-based foreign policy.”

And there is nothing ambiguous or ambivalent about the way he articulates it.

For example, on the Harper government’s unstinting support for Israel, he told Policy Options magazine last month: “Canada’s not going to be an honest broker between an international terrorist organization and a liberal democracy.” There were nearly 20,000 PDF downloads of the Q&A, meaning everyone at Foreign Affairs, and the entire foreign-policy community, read it.

There’s no doubt about it – with Baird, you know exactly where he’s coming from. He’s always been Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s go-to guy for hot files. As Treasury Board president, he sponsored the Federal Accountability Act, with its strict limits on campaign finance and post-employment guidelines preventing former political staff from lobbying for five years. One friend tells Baird: “You’re the guy who killed all the golf tournaments.” To which he cheerfully replies, “I hate golf.” And more seriously: “Should someone be able to buy five hours of a minister’s time for a golf game? Is that good for democracy?”

As environment minister, he pushed back against climate-change activists trashing Canada on the world stage, and mocked the record of the Liberals, who signed on to Kyoto but saw greenhouse-gas emissions go up 27 per cent on their watch. At a parliamentary committee, he once made this point with a chart.

As transport minister, he rolled out $40 billion of infrastructure money to help Canada through the Great Recession of 2008-09. Though the money was shovelled out the door, the auditor-general found no fault with the way it was managed. Then as government House leader leading up to last May’s election, Baird was superb at reading the mood of the minority House.

In his present role, Baird begins from an understanding that the foreign minister has one client: the prime minister. “You have to be in sync with the PM,” Baird acknowledges, and on Israel, for example, the two are very much on the same page.

“It’s the PM’s policy and it’s the government’s policy,” Baird says, “but it’s profoundly my policy, too.”

As for renouncing Canada’s honest-broker role in the world, Baird points out: “A principles-based foreign policy is not new. Mackenzie King didn’t wait two years to join the Second World War. (Robert) Borden didn’t wait two years to join the First World War. (Brian) Mulroney was part of a coalition that ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the First Gulf War.”

As for highlights of his first year as foreign minister, he has no trouble naming two: “Spending an hour with Aung San Suu Kyi, that was inspirational,” he says of the Nobel laureate and honorary Canadian citizen who was under house arrest for most of the last 20 years in Myanmar. In last month’s election, her opposition party won 43 of 45 vacant seats. “She predicted the results almost exactly,” he says.

Then just last week, meeting another Nobel laureate, Israeli President Shimon Peres, the last of the founding fathers of his nation. “What an extraordinary man,” Baird. “We were with him at Rideau Hall when he learned Benjamin Netanyahu had just formed a new coalition government.”

And what he’s learned on the job?

“The realization,” he says, “that it’s difficult for Canada to accomplish things alone.” The Libyan liberation, he points out, “was a partnership,” in which Canada played a leading role.

And then, Baird says, “the value of personal relationships is absolutely central. That can’t be overstated.”

His most important interlocutor is obviously Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state. His impression of her: “Smart, tough. I have a lot of respect for her.”

Harper and Baird haven’t concealed their annoyance at the Obama administration kicking approval of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline project down the road past the November election.

“Special interests have a huge amount of power in the U.S., especially in an election year,” he notes. “But I’m confident the project will be reconsidered on its own merits.”

In the meantime, Baird says, “it’s healthy and smart for us to have alternatives” to developing Pacific markets. “We should never put all our eggs in one basket. We’re a Pacific nation; that’s a big part of my thinking.”

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