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In conversation with… John Baird

April 5, 2013

After a career that has spanned provincial and federal politics, minority and majority governments, and an impressive range of cabinet portfolios, the Honourable John Baird surprised many Canadians — and maybe even the Prime Minister — when he resigned in early February. Navigator Managing Principal Will Stewart sat down for a conversation with his former boss — and long-time friend

You’ve just retired as Minister of Foreign Affairs. What got you interested in politics in the first place?

I think I was always interested in watching the news or reading the paper, but in Grade 7 I had a teacher who was very political and ran for the nomination when I was in Grade 8. That was the beginning of my interest. I became even more interested in Grade 9.
Then you went off to university. I understand you were active in politics around a Liberal campaign by former Ontario premier David Peterson?
Yes, two friends and I went to protest David Peterson, who was campaigning for the local Liberal candidate. This candidate was running against a senior cabinet minister who wasn’t going anywhere. His name was Peter Milliken. We were handing out copies of a Globe and Mail editorial basically going after the Liberals for saying that social programs would disappear under free trade. Peterson was appearing at a public mall so we thought it was reasonable to approach him. I tried to approach him to question him about this, and the OPP took me away.
Was that your first real campaign?

Not really, I had already worked on campaigns and was president of the youth wing of the party.
You first ran for office when you were 25 in Nepean. The first time with your name on the sign. What led you to that?
I think I wanted to run provincially since I was about 14. The first time I actually thought about running was for about three hours in the 1990 election, but I didn’t think I could win so I thought maybe I had better finish university. That being said, I had always wanted to run provincially in that riding and I was uncomfortable with my ambition.
So, I resigned from the executive in the summer of 1994 and started a run for the nomination, sold a lot of memberships, and I eventually got the nomination.

That was a contested nomination as well, was it not?
We didn’t even have a computer in my headquarters when I first ran. We had no social media. Without the Internet, we had to physically send around 4,000 videotapes because that’s how those things were done. And that was considered cutting edge.
How has technology changed campaigns?
We certainly spend a lot more money now. We spend more time and effort on social media than we ever did on advertising in the Nepean newspaper. It’s much more professional, too. My first campaign was entirely staffed by volunteers where, with my last campaign, we even paid someone to ID the voters’ list before the election was called. So it’s much more professionalized now, even at that riding level.
The volunteers who came in and manned the phones and stuffed the envelopes for every campaign since Diefenbaker, are they still around?
The term ‘activism’ is deceptively sensational. Institutions are always consulting with management. And being engaged and active isn’t really ‘activism.’
A lot of the people who volunteered 20 years ago when I started just aren’t around, let alone active in the party anymore. That, and the fact you just don’t use envelopes anymore — other than for fundraising letters. Instead, you correspond with emails and social media.
How has technology changed the relationship between politicians and their constituents?
Well, you can get in touch with a lot more people, a lot quicker and at a much lower cost. At the same time, though, it’s not as personal as getting a letter.
What do you consider to be your biggest successes at the provincial political level, before you made the switch to federal politics?
Learning the ropes. I grew a lot. I learned how to set priorities and get things done. When you make mistakes as a provincial parliamentary assistant, fewer people see it — certainly as compared to being a cabinet minister in Ottawa. There’s a smaller press gallery. There’s not as much focus, not as much attention.
How did your time as a backbencher in Ontario shape your future in politics?
I really hated being a backbencher in Opposition. Yes, you’re obviously in the House and representing your constituents. But you’re an Opposition Deputy House Leader — which I did not like. I was getting up every day to complain and criticize, rather than getting things done. Honestly, I did not find it fulfilling. When I was a parliamentary assistant in the first term you could still at least be positive and focused and get a lot of things done for your riding.
What are your favourite memories as a cabinet minister federally or provincially?
Federally, it was the opportunity to see and experience things that few other people have done. That ranges from walking through a slum in Mumbai, looking at a development project that Canada is supporting, or visiting a Syria refugee camp in Jordan. Ultimately, you saw people who became human giants, whether it was Malala Yousafzai or so many others who have shown remarkable and extraordinary courage.
You were one of the first Western leaders to visit Libya during the revolution there. What was it like in the immediate aftermath?
It was pretty surreal because Colonel Gaddafi was still alive, but he had fled. There were all sorts of people who lived across the street and who had never been inside the huge compound of buildings. Seeing his home, which U.S. President Ronald Regan had bombed in the 1980s was rather extraordinary, to say the least.
What about the situation in Ukraine? You were in Independence Square shortly after the fighting had stopped.
I was there before and after it began. Before, it was really extraordinary because I had government security in the middle of an anti-government protest. There were tens of thousands of people in what was, really, a revolution. There were people burning wood in oil drums to keep warm. It was an extraordinary time.
What do you think would most surprise people about political life? What are a few of the most common misperceptions about political life?
Well, when you’re in government you have to make dozens of decisions every single day. In Opposition, you don’t have to make decisions and you can just pick and choose what issues you will focus upon. I’ll make hundreds of decisions in a week and, just like anyone else, there’ll be times when I don’t make the right call. But if you obsess over every decision you never get anything done.
You get comfortable with making the wrong decision?
While I prefer to collect all the information and take a reasonable amount of time to reflect, it is not feasible to take months to make every decision. The entire government would come to a complete halt. I’d rather people criticize me for what I do than for not acting.
What would you say was amongst the greatest challenges you faced in your career?
The scrutiny.
In your everyday life? You mean grocery shopping and being recognized?
It’s funny. When you’re wearing a suit and tie people come up to you, recognize you, talk to you. If you’re in jeans and a golf shirt and a baseball cap, people tend to leave you alone.
Anything you’d change about your career, anything you’d do differently?
When you make hundreds of decisions every week there are obviously decisions that, if you had more information, as a Monday morning quarterback, you’d do differently. I’ve been very fortunate and (hopefully) wise on timing. Running with Mike Harris and supporting Mike Harris in the 1995 election was a good call. Working with and aligning myself with Jim Flaherty, while politically unsuccessful in the short term, I think was the right move. Then getting behind Stephen Harper and running federally, obviously that was a good call.
What are you most looking forward to in your new life?
I’m keen to be successful, whether it be professionally, doing non-profit work or in my personal life. I’m keen to make a contribution in all areas. I’m keen to take on a new challenge. I think it’s better to go two years too early than two minutes late. Everyone has a different clock and some people do stay on too long.

The Little Red Wagon was used to mark the 2000 launch of the Ontario’s Promise program when John Baird was provincial Minister of Children. It brought corporations, organizations, foundations and non-profit agencies together to deliver an agenda for youth development.

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