OTTAWA — His colleagues in the House of Commons might have been shocked at the news, but Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird appeared very zen, even upbeat, as he announced his sudden departure from federal politics.
Baird was displaying the serenity that comes from a decision that has coagulated in the mind over several years, rather than a snap resignation spurred by any one grievance or event, those close to him say.
“This is someone who has given 20 years of his life to politics and public life and he’s done very well…. For some time he’s been thinking about what he’d like to do, what’s next, what to do after this,” said Chris Froggatt, Baird’s former chief of staff and longtime friend.
“He did not have career before politics, like others have. He’s going out on a high … which is the best way to make a decision.”
The announcement itself had been planned for two weeks and was supposed to happen on Thursday, after a respectful heads-up to the prime minister and the Conservative caucus. A leak Monday night threw that plan into disarray — even Stephen Harper learned of it through the media — and left Baird’s staff scrambling to manage the frenzy of attention.
The decision started together in the late fall, as Baird began to confide in friends that he was contemplating his departure.
But the specifics of the how are less important than the why, as in: Why would a 45-year-old with such a marquee portfolio leave in his prime, in an election year?
The “prime” part is key.
Conservatives point to Baird’s political success in various portfolios, particularly the role he played in ushering billions of dollars in infrastructure funding out the door during the economic downturn. He has caused Harper few headaches — his request for gold-embossed business cards was one of the only minor embarrassments.
Insiders say Baird’s work to secure the release of Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy from a jail in Cairo was going to be his last personal and diplomatic victory, particularly in a region in which he has struggled to make connections. On Monday, Baird indicated Fahmy’s release was “imminent.”
“He’s been in politics for 20 years, he’s 45 years old,” said one Ontario Conservative close to Baird.
“The smart people have the discipline to leave when they’re at the top of their game.”
Unlike cabinet colleagues Jason Kenney, James Moore and Peter MacKay, Baird has long since abandoned the notion of running for the Conservative leadership. That fact made him even more valuable to the prime minister — a lieutenant with no political distractions.
Some Conservatives also suggest Baird’s decision may be linked to the sudden death last year of former finance minister Jim Flaherty, which caused many in government to reflect on their lives and their futures.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May hit on that as she lauded Baird in the Commons.
“I had a very full life and busy times and a personal life before I came into politics. There is not a whole lot of life when someone is working flat out as a minister of the Crown,” May 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.”
Since taking on the portfolio, Baird has kept up a frenetic pace of international travel — all of it on commercial flights, unlike his other G-7 counterparts. Unmarried, Baird is the quintessential workaholic minister living out of a suitcase.
“I think he wants to go to Loblaws, buy groceries, and cook a meal,” said one Conservative close to Baird.
“He also wants to spend some time with his friends.”
Baird said he will leave his seat in the next couple of weeks, in part to give himself the time he needs to clear new positions with the federal conflict of interest and ethics commissioner.
He is expected to take on more than one role in the corporate and public policy sector, keeping his foot in both domestic and international issues.
Said Froggatt: “He’s just really career focused, he’s in his peak years and he views the private sector as something incredibly intriguing.”