POLITICS

Will The Real John Baird Stand Up Now?

02/03/2015 05:22 EST | Updated 04/05/2015 05:59 EDT
OTTAWA - Perhaps it was one-time NDP premier Bob Rae who best described Canada's outgoing foreign affairs minister: "John Baird is bombastic, mean-spirited, vicious, eloquent, generous, smart, cantankerous, hardworking, ingratiating, effective, human."

Rae's tweet neatly sums up one of the most complex cabinet ministers in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's inner circle, a politician beloved for his passion and work ethic by his fans but despised in equal measures for meanness and invective by his foes.

So will the real John Baird stand up now that he's shedding the shackles of politics?

Still a young man by political standards, the 45-year-old Baird's personal life has long been the subject of intense gossip in Ottawa and beyond, with whispers of a wild party-boy side that apparently reveals itself more often when he's abroad.

Some in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development have speculated that he enjoys road trips in part because they allow him some freedom from the confines of life in relatively small-town, small-C conservative Ottawa.

Nonetheless, Baird has been boycotting CTV for almost two years after the private broadcaster reported that he and six of his friends stayed at the official residence of Canada's High Commissioner to Great Britain for eight days, free of charge, while on vacation in England.

Baird's office said taxpayers weren't on the hook for the trip.

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, urged Baird to spread his wings — personally and professionally — as she paid tribute to him on Tuesday in the House of Commons.

"There is not a whole lot of life when someone is working flat out as a minister of Crown," she said.

"The Minister of Foreign Affairs, as he takes his leave of this place, is young. He has his whole life ahead of him. I urge him to enjoy it, embrace it and have a wonderful life."

Ottawa city councillor Mark Taylor wondered if Canadians might get to know Baird better now that's leaving public office.

"Having the reins of public life off of him — perhaps we'll all learn a little bit more about who the real John Baird is," Taylor, who worked closely with his fellow Ottawa native over the years as Baird served on the National Capital Commission, said in an interview.

Observers say Baird has evolved from his years as an Ontario cabinet minister under Mike Harris from 1999 to 2003.

Baird was an unflinching social conservative then, calling for mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients and advocating cutting off those who refused to be tested.

As the province's social services minister, he also supported the expansion of Ontario's workfare programs, claiming they reduced welfare rolls by thousands.

Baird recalled those early years when he made his official resignation statement in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

"I was perhaps just a little naive. Driven by ideology, defined by partisanship, at the age of 25," he said.

His fellow parliamentarians say they've come to know a different Baird in recent years. Paul Dewar, NDP foreign affairs critic, praised him for speaking out so often against regimes like Uganda, Kenya and Russia for violating the civil rights of their gay, lesbian and transgendered citizens.

"As minister, he led like no other minister on the world stage when it came to the persecution of gays, lesbians and trans-sexuals," Dewar said.

Baird's stance ignited the ire of REAL Women of Canada, a socially conservative group, who said he'd "abused his position as a cabinet minister to impose his own special interests in the foreign countries of Uganda, Kenya and Russia."

For all the compassion, however, Baird is also known for a disdainful streak — particularly towards the foreign service, that fleet of Canadian diplomats working abroad who are the eyes and the ears of the federal government.

Baird oversaw the slashing of embassy budgets, forcing ambassadors to do their work on a shoestring. His department has cut $170 million from its $2.6 billion budget over the past two years, including the sale of some official residences in an effort to generate $80 million in revenue.

Some diplomats working abroad say Baird is at best dismissive when dealing with embassy staff. Career foreign service officers also snipe that he's an ideologue who doesn't appreciate the importance of diplomacy.

When Robert Fowler, a longtime Canadian diplomat and one-time al Qaida hostage, urged the Conservatives to stop slashing the foreign service because of the harm it was doing to Canada's international interests, Baird was curt.

He sniffed: "I'm not going to get into a debate with a former diplomat."

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25

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