Baird’s mystery departure

John Baird has had only one job in his life and as a lifelong politician who chewed on politics every waking hour, he could certainly do electoral math. And if Baird could not see another Conservative majority for Stephen Harper, neither could he see a renewal of his self-described “dream job” as foreign affairs minister, either in the more confining world of a minority government or under a new leader, or certainly, in opposition. Maybe.

John Baird has had only one job in his life and as a lifelong politician who chewed on politics every waking hour, he could certainly do electoral math.

And if Baird could not see another Conservative majority for Stephen Harper, neither could he see a renewal of his self-described “dream job” as foreign affairs minister, either in the more confining world of a minority government or under a new leader, or certainly, in opposition.

Maybe.

It’s the only half-plausible explanation for the lightning-quick departure from the federal political scene of one of Harper’s most valuable assets over the past decade.

There were doubtless tensions between Baird and Harper because if there weren’t, it would mark the first time in history a prime minister and foreign affairs minister co-existed in such a Shangri-La.

None of the speculative rifts appear to have had the potential to cause Baird to turn on his heels and quit.

There were always whispers and rumours surrounding Baird, but there are baseless rumours floating out there all day, every day about every prominent politician in this country.

One that had been publicized, about his use of the high commissioner’s residence in London, hurt him personally but did not stick politically.

Sure, there is always the lure of the “new chapter” for a politician, which is code for making some real money for a change, and at 45, with his contacts, he can write his own ticket.

But why now and why so quickly?

Why did he have to get out of Dodge so fast that he didn’t even tell his “friend and mentor” Harper until after news had leaked out Monday evening?

From the prime minister he received a hug and an emailed statement of tribute, but no statement in the House.

Friends say the time was right, that he began talking about getting out in private conversations before Christmas.

“Sometimes it is the money,’’ said one.

But, still, to leave behind a job that gave him the travel, the schmooze, the long leash, the gravitas and private meetings with powerful global players — not to mention the power he wielded as the regional minister for the national capital — just raises too many flags.

Not to mention he was pretty good at it.

He was prone to hyperbole, he was accused at times of styling on the job, but he was tireless and passionate on many files.

In interviews he could be combative, but he also leavened his harder lines with sometimes self-deprecating humour. That combativeness came across as zeal for a good debate, not as a dismissive back of the hand to his interlocutor.

For those outside Ottawa who reduce our political figures to cliché cartoon figures, Baird was hard to pigeonhole, even for the Harper haters.

Yes, he took the Harper hard line on the Middle East, he was happy to be Harper’s background chorus while demonizing Vladimir Putin, he has never wavered from what many believe to be a rash and wrong decision to close our minds to Iran under new leadership.

Yet, he fearlessly fought for minorities persecuted around the world and those who were disenfranchised.

He loved the bullhorn, but, as he told me about efforts to free Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, something he now says is “imminent,” he had a choice of being loud or being effective.

“They’re not the same thing,’’ he said.

Baird was also fiercely loyal.

From time to time his name would appear on a list of potential successors to Harper and when that would happen, he would personally reach out to journalists — myself included — and ask that his name be removed, because he didn’t want the job and he didn’t want to appear disloyal to the boss.

The most eloquent tribute to Baird did not come from any of his colleagues, it came from the NDP foreign affairs critic, Paul Dewar.

“He led like no other minister on the world stage when it came to the persecution of gays, lesbians and transsexuals,’’ Dewar said.

His departure puts more of a burden on Harper but in the three big files heading into an election, the prime minister has essentially become his own finance minister, his own public safety minister and, when it comes to our involvement in Iraq, his own foreign affairs minister.

He has lost an eloquent voice.

Yes, Baird got out at the top of his game. Few do that. But, still, something appears to be hanging unsaid as Baird detaches from a job he clearly loved. If it was, simply, time for him to get out, who’s next?

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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