The political arena is a public relations free-for-all. In a realm notorious for slinging more than mud, it is hard to recognize philosophers from sophists, heroes from hell-raisers and fast-talkers with hidden agendas. Still, if you hold your nose and hose down the scene from time to time, there are many elected officials doing solid work; there is even one on Prime Minister Harper’s staff, a dark horse I did not expect. I used to think that being locked in Harper’s cabinet would feel like the interior of an iron maiden, but John Baird is making me think twice.
Notorious for being a Conservative Party pit bull, he has made his opinion ring loud and clear in the House of Commons since his 2006 debut. During Stéphane Dion’s attacks on the environmental policies of Harper’s minority government, Baird’s brutal taunts even threatened the composure of the most even-tempered opponents. In 2009, the Toronto Star called him “a complicated man,” equal parts attack dog and vegetarian.
Fast forward to 2011. John Baird is now the minister of Foreign Affairs under a Conservative majority government, a position in which his provocative approach may be ill-advised. I cringed at his Globe and Mail article a few months after the solid election win: “Stephen Harper said it and I’ve said it: ‘We don’t just go along to get along.’” I dismissed this buffoon and his tough talk as more ham-handed international relations from a government who seeks to negotiate more than connect. I have to admit I was wrong.
When my grandfather brought up John Baird as an example of an effective politician recently, he gained my full attention. My grandfather is a gentle man with no time for nonsense and shouting, and I could not believe that John Baird had his approval. I had stopped listening to the guy two years too soon it seems—he is being named Policymaker of the Year by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute’s Inside Policy magazine. Continuing my Google hunt, I see an article from the National Post: “John Baird blasts Russia’s ‘hateful’ anti-gay law, after pushing privately for change.” In the article, the ‘blast’ was articulate and diplomatic, pushing off from a question about the Sochi 2014 Olympics. ““This mean-spirited and hateful law will affect all Russians 365 days of the year, every year. It is an incitement to intolerance, which breeds hate. And intolerance and hate breed violence.””
And I think: where did this guy come from?
Baird’s dogged support and blustery counterattacks have earned him leeway to grow over time, and while his teeth are sharper than ever, he seems more careful in picking his battles and planning ahead to fight them on his terms. The secret power of his stern stance is that it has remained consistent, something of a blessing in turbulent international times. Baird has done good work to rekindle Canada’s reputation as a highly principled nation, an identity fitting of deep values of freedom.
Many claim we live in an inundation of information, and it does not surprise me that this subtle shift in Baird had to be pointed out to me in order for me to take notice. Still, I can’t let myself off the hook for making assumptions about him. I deride him for his harsh hyperboles, crude tactics and for the company he keeps and endorses at all costs, but I let this blind me to his policy actions that outshone those of his predecessors in foreign affairs. I think he has earned his title as Canadian Policymaker of the Year.
Do I like everything the guy has to say? No. Do I support Stephen Harper? Heck no. Nevertheless, Baird is no longer so easy to dismiss as rash and oppositional. The question remains: is Baird becoming a good leader, or is Harper simply a good puppet master? I can’t decide if it’s Baird or beard, but I am willing to listen to him now, and he makes me wonder who else I may have wrongly dismissed.