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John Baird announces resignation

By David Akin, Postmedia Network

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper saddled John Baird with the job of environment minister from 2007 to 2008.

For a Harper Conservative, this is a portfolio where no glory can be won. It is all defence. And even for governments with a more greenish hue, the environment job is the worst because the department has no money to hand out.

But Harper needed his Mr. Fixit at environment and so Baird soldiered on.

But when Harper tapped Baird a second time to be environment minister — to take the job when Jim Prentice quit federal politics in late 2010 — Baird turned to an aide and quipped, "The PM must really hate me to put me into this job twice."

Of course, the exact opposite was the case. Harper loved having Baird around for two reasons. First, he was tremendously competent at completing the objectives the prime minister gave him. Second, he was a pit bull partisan who could overwhelm opponents with a sharp bite but also with a kindly kick.

"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," Harper said in a statement released minutes after the two men embraced on the floor of the House of Commons at the conclusion of Baird's speech announcing his resignation as the country's foreign affairs minister. Baird said he will step down as the MP for Ottawa West-Nepean "in the weeks ahead."

Bruce Carson passed around that anecdote about Baird's quip early Tuesday, one of several such notes that circulated from those with whom Baird worked across the five major portfolios he held in Harper's cabinet. People liked working for and working with 45-year-old Baird.

"John's intelligence, charm, affability and directness are well appreciated by members of Parliament of all parties," Harper said.

But now what for Harper, his aging government and the important foreign affairs file?

As he had with the other jobs Harper handed him, Baird mastered the complex and politically perilous foreign affairs file. From the threat of Middle East extremism to war in Ukraine to Canada's Keystone pipeline problem with America, there was — and still is — a great deal to manage.

And, for any Conservative who became Harper's foreign affairs minister, there was also the problem that most of the career foreign service officers and their friends in academia blamed Harper for perverting their cherished if mythical Pearsonian middle power foreign policy.

The diplomats make life difficult in little ways for masters they don't like. There might be whispers here and there to reporters. Or they could try to overwhelm a minister with the complexity of the file.

Harper's first foreign affairs minister, Peter MacKay, was only slightly joking when, days after being sworn in, said, "The briefing book on the Middle East alone was this tall" — his hand hovering a foot over his desk — "and it begins with the Old Testament."

But Baird mastered the file and the bureaucrats, a rare skill but one that makes a successful minister in any portfolio.

Ed Fast, the Abbotsford, B.C., MP who is the international trade minister, now becomes acting foreign affairs minister. Fast is diligent, capable, hard-working. But he doesn't have Baird's unique combination of wit and street smarts. Few do.

So will Harper find a permanent replacement at foreign affairs?

He will but not until — or unless — he wins government again this fall. And that task became a lot more difficult Tuesday with the exit of John Baird from his inner circle.

A LOOK BACK AT BAIRD

-June 8, 1995: Elected as Progressive Conservative MPP for Nepean (Ont.); joins Mike Harris provincial government; re-elected in 1999, 2003.

-June 1999: Gets first cabinet roles when Harris names him Minister for Children and Social Services, Minister for Francophone Affairs.

-Aug. 2002: Becomes Ontario's energy minister.

-Oct. 2003: Ontario Conservatives in Opposition after Liberals win election; Baird earns "attack dog" reputation.

-2004: Backs Jim Flaherty, then Ontario's finance minister, for leadership of Ontario Progressive Conservative party; Flaherty loses to John Tory (now mayor of Toronto).

-2004: Endorses Stephen Harper for leadership of new federal Conservative party.

-Nov. 29, 2005: Quits provincial politics, plans to run federally.

-Jan. 23, 2006: Elected Member of Parliament for Ottawa West-Nepean; re-elected in 2008, 2011.

-Jan. 4, 2007: Named federal environment minister.

-Oct. 30, 2008: Appointed federal transportation minister.

-May 18, 2011: Becomes Canada's foreign affairs minister.

-Feb. 3, 2015: Steps down from cabinet, won't run in next election; ends 20-year political career.

- sources: QMI Agency files, Parliament of Canada, Legislative Assembly of Ontario

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