OTTAWA — John Baird made it official this morning, telling a hushed House of Commons that he is stepping down as Stephen Harper's foreign affairs minister and leaving federal politics.
Baird, grinning broadly to a standing ovation from around the Commons, said he is optimistic about the future of the country and boasted about Canada's standing on the world stage.
But he said it was time to quit after two decades in elected politics, that he will soon be leaving his MP's post in an Ottawa riding, and that he will not run in a federal election later this year.
Baird also appeared to confirm the suddenness of his departure, which broke like an earthquake in the frozen capital on Monday evening.
The leak of his pending resignation caught even some of his senior staff off guard, as they were not expecting the news to emerge so soon. Sources say Baird, 45, has no firm private sector gig lined up.
"Mr. Speaker, last night I spoke to the prime minister and informed him I was standing down from cabinet,'' Baird told the packed chamber, with Harper seated just to his left.
"I expressed my intention not to run in the next general election in the new riding of Nepean and I also expressed my intention to stand down as member of Parliament for the Ottawa West-Nepean in the weeks ahead.''
In a press release, Harper said he accepted Baird's resignation "with great regret and affection.''
"John has always been willing to do a lot of the heavy lifting in my various cabinets and has assumed daunting new responsibilities with unsurpassed energy, commitment and professionalism, never losing sight of the fact that he was serving the Canadian people,'' said Harper's statement.
Baird, known as a pugnacious debater with sharp partisan elbows and a close confidant of the prime minister, acknowledged his reputation and said he's learned a great deal since entering electoral politics in Ontario in the mid-90s as a twenty-something flame thrower.
"To make a difference — really make a difference — you can't be defined by partisanship or ideology,'' he said.
A parade of cabinet ministers, Conservative backbenchers and opposition MPs lined up to shake Baird's hand or hug the popular minister after his address, bringing Commons business to a standstill for 15 minutes.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, a fellow Ottawa MP, paid tribute to Baird's work.
"He found his best footing as minister of foreign affairs, in my opinion,'' said Dewar.
Marc Garneau, the Liberal critic, expressed the common feeling of surprise at Baird's departure from politics.
"I'm still trying to understand why you are leaving,'' Garneau said in a direct address to Baird across the Commons aisle.
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Baird is just the latest high-profile minister to abandon Harper's cabinet as the government faces its third shot at re-election after nine years in power.
Jim Flaherty resigned as finance minister shortly before his death last April, and former CTV anchor Peter Kent left his post at environment in the July 2013.
Conservatives are painting Baird's sudden departure as a savvy and uncontroversial move to the business world after decades of public service.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May had another take.
"When a minister of the Crown feels his advice is not welcomed by a prime minister, when everything is run out of the Prime Ministers Office, I think it is hard for anyone to play the role of loyal soldier,'' May told reporters.
The mystery of Baird's sudden departure from politics is matched by his chameleon-like political persona.
Former Liberal MP Bob Rae — whose association with Baird dates back to their days in the Ontario legislature in the 1990s — took to Twitter to call him a "bombastic, mean-spirited, vicious, eloquent, generous, smart, cantankerous, hardworking, ingratiating, effective, human.''
Last night, Conservative MP Larry Miller tweeted: "Hope what I'm hearing about MP John Baird not running is false He's been a gr8 FA Minister Hope he's gonna help Kevin Rudd fix the UN & WHO.''
Baird was recently asked by the head of a new international commission to help him reform the United Nations World Health Organization because it responded too slowly to the Ebola crisis.
After twenty years of public office, I'm optimistic about Canada's future, and about the next chapter in my life. pic.twitter.com/nrvW4HKMoh— John Baird (@Baird) February 3, 2015
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's statement on Baird's resignation:
It is with great regret and affection that I today accepted the resignation of one of the finest ministers that I have had the privilege of working with, John Baird.
John has been an essential part of my ministry since 2006, when he served as President of the Treasury Board. Since then, he has been Minister of the Environment, Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and, of course, Minister of Foreign Affairs.
He has accomplished remarkable things in those portfolios, including introducing and successfully shepherding the new Federal Accountability Act through both houses of Parliament, delivering some 12,000 infrastructure stimulus projects across the country during the global economic crisis when they were needed most, and most recently taking on the Ukraine and ISIL crises.
John has always been willing to do a lot of heavy lifting in my various cabinets and has assumed daunting new responsibilities with unsurpassed energy, commitment and professionalism, never losing sight of the fact that he was serving the Canadian people.
John’s intelligence, charm, affability and directness are well appreciated by Members of Parliament of all parties. In fact, in 2010, he was voted Parliamentarian of the Year.
On behalf of all Canadians, I thank John Baird for his years of tireless devotion to Canadians in the House of Commons, in Cabinet and in the Legislature of Ontario. Parliament was better for his presence, the country better for his service. His many achievements will be honoured and remembered.
I wish John the best of luck in all his future endeavours.
Baird's statement to the media:
I am eternally grateful for the trust and opportunity that the people of Ottawa West-Nepean placed in me as their representative for the past ten years. I also wish to thank the Prime Minister, my cabinet, caucus, and parliamentary colleagues for such a memorable experience.
Since moving to federal politics, Baird has held a variety of portfolios in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, from President of the Treasury Board (2006), Minister of the Environment (2007, 2010), Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities (2008), Leader of the Government in the House of Commons (2010), and Minister of Foreign Affairs (2011).
I am excited for the next chapter of my life, but I will always be grateful for the experience I have earned at both the provincial and federal levels of government. There is no greater calling than public service to your country, and I am proud of what our Government has accomplished over the past nine years.
I strongly believe that Prime Minister Harper is the best leader to move this country forward. Since 2006, he has a proven record as a strong economic manager, and a powerful voice of moral clarity on the world stage. I was blessed and proud to have served alongside him.
-- With files from Stephanie Levitz and Jennifer Ditchburn