Lunch with John Baird: not out for validation from ‘elites’ and why he’s scared of Iran
OTTAWA – John Baird is sorry he’s in jeans.
He’s usually better dressed, he assures, but he’s about to take a flight to New York for meetings at the United Nations – the last leg of the million or so kilometres he’s clocked since becoming foreign affairs minister in May 2011.
That’s why Baird chose Bambu, an Asian-fusion restaurant by the airport, nestled in a parking lot kitty-corner to his Ottawa West-Nepean riding.
He orders a Diet Coke with lots of ice, and I ask if this year was busier than the last.
“It’s hard to say,” says Baird. “When you work all the time, you can’t really get any busier.”
Foreign affairs – the 10th or so portfolio he’s held in an 18-year career in both provincial and federal politics – is a file he clearly relishes.
“You get to see and experience so many things, it’s just an extraordinary privilege to do,” he says.
Baird recounts a recent trip to Maidan Square in Kyiv (“It was almost like being in a revolution”) and visiting a land mines organization in Laos (“That had a huge effect on me”), not to mention meeting teen activist Malala Yousafzai, as among the year’s highlights.
(Lowlights, presumably, came while ordering pizza to his hotel room at 9 p.m. because he was too tired to go out.)
He settles on the salmon sushi, and explains how he views his current role.
“My job is to promote Canadian values and Canadian interests,” he says.
“Increasingly we have a global economy and jobs is a huge priority. If we want to be strong abroad, you’ve got to be strong at home. How do we pay for health care and education? We do it by producing and manufacturing things, and selling them around the world.”
I ask how he deals with criticism – such as former prime minister Joe Clark, who has spoken out about the Conservative government’s new “economic diplomacy” approach.
“I don’t seek to have my views validated by foreign policy elites, or media,” Baird says.
“If the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star writes an editorial, they don’t like one of my policies – I don’t seek their validation.”
Whose does he seek?
“I want to do well by my constituents, and do well by what I think is in the best interest of the country,” he says. “Our policy on Israel – I’m really proud of our policy. I’m passionate about it, and some people disagree with it. That’s fine. It’s the right – it’s the morally right policy. As well, we have great relations with much of the Arab world.”
All hazel eyes and furrowed brow, wearing a striped blue, pink and grey shirt with a blue tie, Baird, 44, says everybody has his or her style in the job.
“I’m personable, blunt, direct, honest,” he says.
“Sometimes, you know, people try to be too diplomatic…I think I’m probably a little more direct than most.”
He’s less direct, however, when it comes to his personal life.
Baird rests his hand over his mouth, and curtly declines to provide details.
“I,” he coughs, “I think politicians are entitled to a private life, and that’s a good thing.”
“It is what it is…My private life is my private life.”
‘I’m going to give as good as I get’
Baird plans to run again in 2015, but says he doesn’t have leadership ambitions.
He speaks quickly, and in bursts.
Does he think about running for leader? “No.”
Would he want to? “No.”
“I don’t think about it, no.”
So he’s not saying he wouldn’t want to?
“I am, yeah. I’m not planning on running for leader.”
Has he ever wanted to? “Never, really.”
“I wanted to be an MPP, I wanted to be a provincial cabinet minister,” he says. “This is my second political career. I’m more relaxed, comfortable in my own skin, focused on my riding, focused on my cabinet job.”
Does he think Harper will run again?
“Yep. He said he will. He clearly loves his job, he’s clearly in his prime.”
As a sort of cautionary tale, Baird makes a comparison to the Liberals: he says Paul Martin was “constantly” undermining then-prime minister Jean Chretien.
“I think we have avoided that,” he says.
I ask about Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s comments at the recent Conservative convention, in which he defended former chief of staff Nigel Wright, whom Harper has accused of deception in the Senate scandal cover-up.
Baird calls the situation “totally overblown.”
“He just answered the question honestly, I don’t think there was any undermining, just giving his personal opinion.”
As for Kenney and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s alleged foul-mouthed spat over Rob Ford: “Obviously Jim’s a friend of the Ford family, and feels badly for what’s happened. And nothing more than that,” he says.
“People have differences of opinion and I think by and large we have a pretty cohesive team.”
Would he support Kenney if he ran for leader? “Don’t have to worry about it, because it’s not before us,” he says.
Baird has been called an “attack dog” in the House, and at times, it’s not hard to see why: he stares with intensity, speaks with purpose, and doesn’t give much away.
“If you get up and you attack me and you attack the government, yeah, I’m going to give as good as I get.”
He admits there is a lack of spontaneity in question period, which he believes has declined over the past few years.
“I think on both sides, the government side and the opposite, people get up and they just read everything,” he says.
“If you know your files, you don’t need to.”
At the same time, he says he works well with his opposition colleagues.
“I think most people think I’m pretty approachable,” he says. “I can take on a partisan role when I have to, but I’m not a partisan person.”
As he dips his salmon into wasabi-spiked soy sauce, I ask what he makes of the prime minister’s office – are complaints about control such as those raised by former Conservative Brent Rathgeber, warranted?
“I’m a minister of the government, what would you expect me to say?” he says, leaning back in his chair.
“If I have issues with anyone, I deal with them directly.”
On the Senate file – a subject I’ve been asked in advance by the communications team not to broach – Baird admits it has been a “challenging year.”
READ MORE: Six political battles of 2013
What was it like to watch Harper – whom Baird has known for more than half his life – deal with it?
“Obviously, this is just not something he would have approved of, and supported. It’s probably why they didn’t tell him,” he says, in obvious reference to Wright’s deal with Senator Mike Duffy.
“Knowing him as I do, it’s just not what he’s about.”
He looks at me and pauses.
“Eat your food,” he says.
A new nuclear arms race
Iran scares him.
More specifically: Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, there’s two, three, four, five, six countries that will follow,” says Baird.
“The world has done so much on nuclear non-proliferation over the last 40 years, it will be terrible to see a new nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”
Is that possibility?
“You don’t build a plan to manufacture medical isotopes under 300 metres of rock. You don’t build nuclear power plants not anywhere near the electricity grid,” says Baird.
He is still skeptical of Iran’s intentions to temporarily curb its nuclear program. “It’s not a final agreement, and let’s hope we can get more progress and a permanent agreement over the next five months,” he says.
“We have big concerns about them, and they’re not going to change overnight. Obviously we want to see a diplomatic solution. That’s in everyone’s interest.”
A native of the Ottawa suburb Bells Corners, Baird first got involved in politics in his early teens, when his Grade 7 teacher – who happened to be Conservative Senator Marjory LeBreton’s sister – ran for the Conservative nomination.
“It was just something that interested me,” he says by way of explanation.
He first met the future prime minister when he was 16, and Harper was working for MP Jim Hawkes, whom Harper eventually ran against. Baird made the switch from provincial politics after co-chairing Harper’s federal leadership campaign in Ontario.
“We unexpectedly lost the 2004 election, I thought we were going to win it,” he says. “And I thought well, if we we’re going to win, it required more people to get off the bench and into the game, and it just really, I sort of fell into it. Because it was never part of my plan.”
He likes where the party is now: a majority Parliament, without the threat of an election constantly looming.
“We can be more focused on the job,” he says, referencing achievements such as the free trade deal with Europe.
“For the first time in a long time, both opposition parties, they’ve got new leaders, and they’re able to play a long game instead of having to be ready for an election in five days, five weeks, or five months.”
And in nearly two decades in politics, he has learned never to underestimate his opponents.
Especially the Liberals.
“The Liberal party’s been in government a lot more often than we have, and I think we should take every Liberal leader seriously,” he says.
He even credits Liberal leader Justin Trudeau with bringing the party back together.
“There’s no one out to knife him, there’s no one out badmouthing him, there’s no one sitting behind him rolling their eyes,” he says.
He says he gets along “okay” with both Trudeau and NDP leader Tom Mulcair, praising the latter as being strong in the House, even as he criticizes his policies.
His assistant chimes in: time to go to the airport.
A final trip before Baird gets a week’s holiday for Christmas, although he knows he’s never really off.
As he gets up to leave, Baird reads the fortune in his cookie.
It says: “Good luck is coming your way.”
© 2013 Shaw Media