Two faces of John Baird

Environment minister is both a political brawler and a diplomat

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Friday, February 9, 2007

There are two John Bairds, the partisan actor who revels in the battle, and the consensus builder who rises above it.

Both Bairds were in the room yesterday at the special parliamentary committee on climate change. Baird opened with a PowerPoint presentation charting Canada's greenhouse-gas emissions record on a trend line going up, vs. Kyoto targets on another line going down.

"Nothing happened, nothing, nothing, nothing," Baird said. "I agree with the deputy leader of the Liberal Party, they didn't get it done."

"I can see you're excited about your new job," ventured Fabian Manning, a Conservative member from Newfoundland and Labrador.

"You bet your boots I am," Baird replied.

In the month since Baird has been environment minister, the debate on climate change has been transformed from one in which the Harper government was being constantly pummelled to one in which it is holding its own, in the House, in the dialogue with stakeholders and in the country.

In the House, every time Baird rises with a yellow sheet in hand, the Liberals know an inconvenient quote is at hand. The other day, he quoted someone who said Canada was "once again providing leadership in the world."

"Do we know who said that yesterday?" Baird asked. "Al Gore."

At the committee yesterday, Baird had a sharp exchange with West Island Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia, who suggested the Conservatives' late-blooming action on climate change was driven by the polls and by Stephane Dion's election as Liberal leader.

Baird went back to his Power Point, highlighting the chart at the year 1996. "I see Stephane Dion's election right there," he replied. "And he joined the cabinet at the same time."

In a nasty exchange with Liberal environment critic David McGuinty, Baird praised the environmental initiatives of the Ontario government of his brother, Dalton McGuinty.

You want to mix it up with Rusty Baird? Bring it on.

But the moment Baird sits down in question period, or pushes back from the witness table at the committee, the constructive side of his nature takes over.

Elizabeth May, the Green Party leader, was sitting in at the hearings yesterday as she always does. After his two-hour appearance, he stopped for a word with her.

"Let's get together," he said. He then turned to an assistant. "Let's find some time for Elizabeth."

And before heading out to face a media scrum, he asked another aide: "Where's Nathan?" and went over for a private moment with NDP environment critic Nathan Cullen.

Baird has it exactly right to keep the NDP on his radar screen.

The math of the committee is simple: Six Conservatives and one NDPer make seven.

Four Liberals and two Bloquistes make six.

The Cons and the Dippers have it, provided they can keep it together, and agree on targets and a schedule for short- and long-term emissions reductions.

The Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois have different agendas.

The Liberals are ragging the puck in the committee. It's quite clear they don't want a deal. When the Conservatives offered to sit during the two-week parliamentary recess in March, the Liberals made it clear they had to be home with their families and their constituents. And everybody understands why. Dion has built his leadership brand entirely on the environment. An agreement in the committee will send the Clean Air Act back to the House for adoption, taking climate change off the election ballot. Dion would become a one-trick pony without a trick.

The Bloc's agenda is all-Quebec, all Kyoto. It wants a carbon-emissions trading market in Montreal. They want $328 million of Kyoto compliance money for Quebec.

But as long as the NDP stays in the game with the Conservatives, the Liberals and Bloc are irrelevant. So, what does Nathan want, what do the NDP need? Cullen is a direct line to NDP leader Jack Layton.

Baird left one non-partisan point on the table yesterday.

"I don't think failure's an option," he said. "I think Canadians want us to act."

He's got that right.

 
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