John Baird: A man for all questions

Video: A loyal cabinet minister at times partisan, forthright, dignified and farcical
Leader of the Government in the House of Commons John Baird answers a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Tuesday Feb. 15, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird (Canadian Press)
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird (Canadian Press)

John Baird will go down as a man who never held a job too long. He’d already had plenty before he came to Ottawa in 2006, thanks to a decade on the Tory benches at Queen’s Park. Then, on Parliament Hill, Baird was Stephen Harper’s first president of the Treasury Board, twice his minister of the environment, and also a stimulus-era minister of transport and infrastructure, strident government house leader, and foreign minister during a civil war in Ukraine and airstrikes in Iraq.

When Ottawa West-Nepean’s man in Parliament showed up for question period, he always played for the cameras. Never a man of one mood, nor a single tone, Baird was a man for all questions. As Baird steps down from cabinet, here’s our six-video portrait of a PM’s trusted ally on the front bench for nine years of tough government.

He could be partisan.

Baird holds infrastructure money dear to his heart. He saw billions of it leave his office when he was the minister responsible for stimulus spending in the middle of a recession. On a quiet Friday in March 2013, NDP MP Nathan Cullen accused the government of not increasing infrastructure spending but, in fact, cutting it. How dare he.

As he wrapped up his defence, Baird was indignant. He unleashed the partisan streak for which he became so well known. “Why doesn’t the NDP put aside their blind-ology”—he said, accidentally coining a fairly clever portmanteau—”stand up and support municipalities, stand up and support the construction of bridges, roads and sewers? Why won’t they do the right thing and finally redeem themselves?”

He could be loyal.

Tom Mulcair was in the middle of his hot streak in the House of Commons. The NDP Leader had perfected his famous prosecutorial approach to question period, he took most of his party’s slots in the daily session, and he addressed almost all of them to the prime minister.

On June 3, just days after he’d gone after Stephen Harper’s alleged role in the Wright-Duffy affair for the first time, Mulcair again looked at the PM seated across the way, eschewed the traditional salutation to “Mr. Speaker,” and asked a simple question.

“On what specific date did the prime minister first speak with Mike Duffy about his expenses?”

Harper didn’t get on his feet. Baird did, and he recited a careful defence of Harper’s position. A baby cried somewhere above, perhaps in protest or maybe just because babies cry a lot, as Baird took his seat. Mulcair tried again for an answer, but this time, recognizing Harper wasn’t in a talking mood, he directed his question to Baird. Did Senator Marjory Lebreton, another player in the scandal and then a member of cabinet, recuse herself from the appropriate discussions?

Baird could have simply answered the question directly (odds: low), or he could have answered vaguely (odds: higher), but he chose a tack typical of the Tories at the time: attack Mulcair for taking too long to tell authorities that a one-time mayor of Laval, Que., offered him a bribe (the offer came 17 years prior; Mulcair did not take the bribe). Loyal soldier, that Baird.

He could be dignified.

Saudi authorities handed Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger with family in Quebec, a harsh sentence for speaking ill of Saudi clerics: 1,000 lashes over 20 weeks, a decade in prison, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Rights groups, the opposition, and Badawi’s family called on Baird to protest. The foreign minister raised the issue with his Saudi counterpart and informed the House of his advocacy.

Gone was the bluster of the old days. Gone was any conducting of the hands or bellowing across the aisle. “Canada considers the punishment of Mr. Badawi to be an insult to human dignity. It’s of extreme concern for us. We continue to call for clemency in this case,” he said. Normally, ministers answers invite only more questions. Not in the case of Raif Badawi.

He could be forthright.

Parliament did vote in favour of airstrikes in Iraq, but whether or not the mission would go to a vote was the subject of speculation for long enough that the opposition was restless. Whispers outside the Commons suggested that troops would head overseas, but nothing was on the record in the House. Megan Leslie hoped to get something on the record.

“Canadians have a right to know what their government is planning when it comes to our troops operating on foreign soil,” she said. “Does this government plan to send Canadian Forces to conduct airstrikes in Iraq?”

Baird stood, outlined Islamic State’s threat to Canadians, outlined the humanitarian and military resources his government had committed to Iraq, and said “no decisions had been taken” with respect to “further action”—i.e. troop deployments. Leslie pressed the minister. She said Canada needs a strategy and should not “sleepwalk” into a prolonged war. She called for a House vote on any potential deployment.

Baird replied, in a measured tone, that the government would bring any combat mission to the House for a confidence vote. Leslie got her answer, Baird sat down, and parliamentarians approved the mission days later.

He could be silly.

“Bonjour, la presidente,” started Tory backbencher Larry Miller, whose atrocious French had his colleagues in stitches. This was an inauspicious start to a planted question to Baird from a fellow Ontario MP. Miller hoped for the government’s support of his private member’s bill (now law), which would “prohibit the bulk removal of transboundary waters” and presumably make his Lake Huron constituents happy.

Baird, on his feet and smiling, quipped. “Tough, but fair,” he said of Miller’s lob. “The government will be standing solidly behind this member and his efforts to stop the Americans from stealing all our clean water!” Baird mock-seriously gestured at the opposition side and sat with a self-satisfied grin. Question period at its silliest.

He could be farcical.

The fun started when Pat Martin, a New Democrat who knows his way around a quote, saluted the Centers for Disease Control and the Government of Quebec for preparing tongue-in-cheek emergency preparedness procedures in the event of a zombie invasion. At the mention of a zombie invasion, Liberal MP John McKay threw his head back in laughter, and Martin was just getting started.

Zombies don’t recognize borders, he said. An invasion south of the border could become a continent-wide pandemic. Martin’s question to Baird ended with a flourish: “Is he working with his American counterparts to develop an international zombie strategy so that a zombie invasion does not turn into a zombie apocalypse?”

Speaker Andrew Scheer chuckled and recognized Baird, who was quick to his feet and almost as quick to a pun. “I want to assure this member and all Canadians that I am dead—icated that this never happens.” Guffaws ensued. Jason Kenney couldn’t hold it in. Baird made a promise. “Canada will never become a safe haven for zombies, ever.” He really bellowed that last word.

The fight against zombies won’t make a legacy, but Baird understood the value of momentary levity in such a serious place.

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