Environment Minister John Baird's Political Careerism

An encounter between Environment Minister John Baird and environmental icon David SUZUKI last week made for good TV. Baird was at a green consumer products show in Toronto, working the floor the day after he made his big announcement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 14, 2007

An encounter between Environment Minister John Baird and environmental icon David SUZUKI last week made for good TV. Baird was at a green consumer products show in Toronto, working the floor the day after he made his big announcement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 14, 2007

Environment Minister John Baird's Political Careerism

An encounter between Environment Minister John Baird and environmental icon David SUZUKI last week made for good TV. Baird was at a green consumer products show in Toronto, working the floor the day after he made his big announcement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Suzuki was there being Suzuki. The broadcaster cut through the crowd to confront the politician. "It's a disappointment, John," he said in the mild but assertive tone perfected in so many The Nature of Things narrations. Baird came back with, "This is more action than any government in Canadian history has ever taken." But Suzuki wasn't having it. "It's not enough, John," he said, deploying the minister's first name again in a way that was at once disarmingly cordial and deflatingly condescending.

There is history between them. After Stephen HARPER appointed him early this year to what was shaping up as his toughest cabinet post, Baird wasted no time arranging a meeting with the country's most famous environmentalist. It was typical of the private bridge-building that is the unexpected flip side of Baird's ferocious public persona. "I asked him, 'Do you believe Canada can make its Kyoto commitment?' " Baird, in an interview, recalled asking Suzuki. "He paused and said, 'I don't know.' " Baird found it remarkable that Suzuki didn't recite the doctrine that Kyoto's targets must be met no matter what. "When the biggest environmentalist in the country can't look the environment minister in the face and say, 'Yes, we can do this,' that surprised me," he said. "I thought he was being very honest."

That question - whether achieving Kyoto is still possible or not - looms over the job Baird is now struggling to finish. Under the treaty, Canada is committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. But nothing much was done to achieve that during the Jean CHRÉTIEN years, when emissions were allowed to keep climbing, leaving the Tories a daunting task. Baird says it's an impossible one. So his first goal last week was to change the basic terms of debate, substituting his own targets and timetables for the Kyoto ones. This was the point he tried to get Suzuki to budge on in their private meeting. And it was the subtext for that very public exchange that signalled Suzuki - like the rest of the environmental movement, the opposition parties, and even Al Gore - would not easily let Baird set his own post-Kyoto ground rules.

Yet if Baird looked embattled last week, he was hardly beaten. The contrast between him and Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor, the other Harper front-bencher under siege these days, is instructive. O'Connor, 65, was first elected in 2004 after a three-decade military career, and has repeatedly looked disoriented in the face of Afghanistan detainee revelations. Baird, now 37, was only 26 when he was first elected to Ontario's legislature, held a series of testing cabinet jobs in the Mike HARRIS government, and then jumped to federal politics to run under Harper. He has displayed a piledriver style in the House, backed up by a systematic approach to taking control of his assigned files. If O'Connor is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of political amateurism, Baird is a case study in the upside of political careerism.

He rolled out a textbook media blitz around last week's policy package, one that seemed to maintain its momentum despite an embarrassing leak and late interventions by celebrity anti-global warming crusaders. Baird's first tactical move, a week before his centrepiece April 26 announcement, was to put his opponents on the defensive by releasing an impact study projecting 275,000 lost jobs by 2009 if Canada tried to achieve the Kyoto target. Baird rounded up independent economists, including the Toronto Dominion Bank's widely quoted Don Drummond, a former top federal finance official, to validate his grim accounting of the economic costs.

He was a blur of action in the days that followed. Earth Day, April 22, found him digging into the hard clay of the yard at Lakeview Public School in his Ottawa riding to help plant 10 silver maples. He surprised the media, and the Opposition, with a proposal to ban incandescent light bulbs, in favour of more efficient compact fluorescents, by 2012, putting his name and face in the news attached to an upbeat story just before he released his climate-change policy. Striding through carefully staged events, even the errant leak of his big greenhouse gas speech (a copy was faxed by a newly hired office worker to the Opposition lobby of the House) didn't throw him off his game - much. "Was I angry, was I disappointed, was I upset? Yes," he says. "Did I yell, did I scream? No."

Not that the image of Baird yelling and screaming is hard to conjure up. He slips into full-throated, full-throttle mode easily in the House. A big man with a brass voice and a smouldering scowl, he likes to say he "gives as good as he gets." And he has made a specialty of taking on jobs that put him in the line of fire. In Ontario politics, his first important assignment from Harris was repealing the labour laws brought in by Bob RAE's NDP government. "I was booed out of more than one labour hall," he remembers, sounding positively nostalgic. "But I showed up." Last year, as Harper's treasury board minister, he pushed through the government's accountability package, cutting a deal with the NDP to move the government ethics law out of committee, fulfilling a key Tory election pledge.

When Harper decided to dump Rona Ambrose as environment minister, Baird's capacity to both advance a file behind the scenes and fend of attacks in the House must have looked like the optimum skill set for her replacement. He is also a workhorse, although as a single man he finds enough free evenings to serve as a stand-in date for Laureen Harper when the Prime Minister isn't available to escort his wife to Ottawa social functions. More importantly, he proved his loyalty by quitting a safe seat in provincial politics to co-chair Harper's campaign in the crucial Ontario battleground in the 2004 election. And he is a close ally of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, a fellow veteran of Harris's Ontario regime, whose support would be vital for any serious new environmental regulations that might affect the economy.

But for all his experience, toughness and connections, Baird has not been able to forge the sort of ties to players outside the Conservative fold that made his handling of the Accountability Act last year so intriguing. "The politics of the environment, the politics within the environmental community, are so strong," he says. "You're either perfect or you're not." Still, he cites a bit of constructive engagement across party lines: NDP Leader Jack LAYTON persuaded him to take a second look at Kyoto's international emissions credit trading mechanism, a system under which companies in Canada can get credit for contributing to emissions reductions abroad. Baird admits he had written off the concept until Layton pressed him to reconsider. "He said, 'Would you do me a favour and just look at this?' I said sure," Baird said. "You know, it wasn't half bad." He incorporated the system into his revamped policy.

But for every story about Baird bending there's another about his inflexibility. John Bennett, a veteran activist and executive director of the Climate Action Network, describes Baird as confrontational to the point where his sessions with activists are unproductive. In a recent meeting with CLIMATE-CHANGE campaigners, he says Baird set a combative tone right from the start by challenging several environmentalists on their claims to non-partisanship. "It was the weirdest meeting with a minister I've ever had," Bennett says. He adds that when Baird was asked to resume including environmental group representatives on delegations to UN climate-change meetings, a practice initiated by Brian MULRONEY but ended under Harper, he was bluntly dismissive. "He said, 'Why would we do that? I've read what you've said about us in the paper.' "

More fundamentally, though, Bennett says Baird's resort to "bluster and spin" makes it hard to engage him in serious give-and-take. Indeed, Baird's repeated assertion that his new policy is "the toughest in the world" does seem a bit over-the-top. His most important target is to reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions 20 per cent by 2020. But, to cite just one international point of comparison, Britain's target for cutting carbon dioxide is 26 to 32 per cent by 2020, and that's after the U.K. substantially reduced output in recent years while Canada's has soared. Another contrast that suggests Baird's boast is open to doubt: France expects to shrink its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2010, the year that Baird's timetable will only begin to impose any regulatory restrictions at all, and even then nothing close to what it would take to reduce Canadian levels to 1990 levels.

His critics say his plan to achieve his goal is even more problematic. It calls for major industries to shrink their greenhouse gas emissions by 60 megatonnes in 2020, from somewhere between 350 and 400 megatonnes in 2006. Yet his proposed regulations to accomplish this don't explicitly cap emissions or impose a reduction. Instead, he relies on so-called intensity targets, which would force companies to burn fossil fuels more efficiently but still allow their output of carbon dioxide to increase if overall production was also rising. Baird's officials insist that if intensity rules are stringent enough, they will ultimately drive down total emissions. But environmental groups say regulating intensity alone will only slow the increase in greenhouse gas output. "These regulations are designed to allow emissions to grow," Bennett says.

Don't bet on Baird backing down any time soon. He was still counterpunching hard on the weekend. When Gore called his package "a total fraud," he didn't hesitate to slam the former U.S. vice-president for never trying to ratify Kyoto. That Baird has no time for a Democrat is hardly surprising; he keeps an "it can be done" sign on his desk, just like the one Ronald Reagan's famously had on his.

In fact, U.S. politics is much on Baird's mind as he tries to set a new climate-change course. He's most upbeat when pitching a plan to negotiate a so-called "clean auto pact" with the George W. Bush administration to synchronize new car and truck emissions rules on both sides of the border. It's classic Baird, aggressively pushing the next controversial agenda item while the last one is still very much in play. "I got involved in politics to make a difference, to do big, bold things," he says. "I didn't come to shuffle paper and be a caretaker." He's being accused of many things as the environment file heats up, but even by his worst enemies, never that.

Maclean's May 14, 2007