John Baird and his legacy

The abrupt resignation of a senior figure in the political class invariably provokes torrential goodwill, both from other parliamentarians and the press. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this. The first, and most obvious, is that journalists and politicians have real and sustained contact with one another and often establish a level of familiarity which the public enjoys with neither. The second is simply convention. It’s considered dishonourable to speak ill of an elected politician’s legacy when he or she resigns or dies.

This brings us to a third reason, related to the first two, which is the politics of respectability. It is one of the peculiar quirks of modern democracy that the term “partisan” is almost universally invoked in the pejorative, as if strong disagreement is not something to desire or expect from elected officials. Respectability politics are partly rooted in the personal relationships which inevitably form between politicians, journalists, staffers, and bureaucrats: these people have to see each other every day, so a measure of respect and cordiality is probably necessary (and perfectly understandable).

But they are also the products of ideological consensus. Political revolutions register success when even opponents are forced to acquiesce to their language and their populism becomes orthodoxy. Neoliberalism hasn’t been as ideologically potent in Canada as it has in, say, Britain or America, but we have certainly not been immune to the thirty-year project of reshaping democratic politics around the language of accounting and management.

One of its consequences has been the profound contraction of the boundaries of “respectable” political debate and the effacement of many of the conflicts that defined earlier epochs of democratic politics with a new and more technocratic political lexicon. Respectability, though not entirely related to this development, is certainly a part of it. It represents one of the pressures placed on elected politicians to conform to the dominant language and thinking of the moment – it’s precisely for this reason that someone calling for new taxes on high earners is accused of being “divisive” or Greece’s new government is counterposed with ostensible “moderates” (who are considered “moderate” because they want to continue enforcing a socially and economically catastrophic program on their country). In this way, respectability politics begins with politeness and ends with antipolitics.

One reply to this might be that many of Canada’s elected politicians are rude and disrespectful to one another. This is often true and, were I an elementary school teacher I think I would refrain from exposing any of my classes to Question Period. But there’s a qualitative difference between profound, ideologically-fierce disagreement and smarm (I highly recommend this magisterial piece of writing on that topic by Tom Scocca as a companion to this post). Democratic politics is at its healthiest when there is disagreement without smarm.

***

Which brings us to John Baird, an elder statesman of Canada’s conservative movement who surprised everyone by announcing his sudden resignation as Foreign Minister yesterday. I’m not really going to speculate on the cause of Baird’s departure because, like almost everyone else in Canada, I do not know it. Perhaps the man is genuinely tired of Canadian politics after two decades on its front lines. Perhaps there is an impending revelation to be made public from which he feels it would be impossible to recover. There’s also the chance that he has leadership aspirations and, unsure of his party’s prospects in the coming federal election, wants to get out now so as to avoid being tainted by the result. We will have to wait and see.

In any case, the reaction to Baird’s resignation has thusfar been thoroughly predictable – the typical blend of insincere reverence and revisionist deification. Baird, we are told, “worked with Opposition critics” (the CBC – and here you can view an example of Baird working with his colleagues for yourself); “listens sincerely and put aside partisanery [sic] in the national interest” (Marc Garneau); “well regarded by Tories, Liberals, New Democrats, and journalists” (Robert Benzie, The Star). The CBC has compiled a great many more of these platitudes here. For good measure, Baird addressed his colleagues in the House of Commons declaring

I was perhaps just a little naive [when I entered politics]. Driven by ideology, defined by partisanship, at the age of 25…I quickly learned though to make a difference, to really make a difference, you can’t be defined by partisanship, nor by ideology. You need instead to be defined by your values.

Now, I’m really not sure how ideology and “values” are antithetical or why having either doesn’t compel you to act on them in a partisan manner. If values are strong moral views and ideology is the political articulation of those views, the two would seem intimately and inseparably related.

Anyhow, this chorus of praise is likely to grow in the next few weeks as commentators jump over one another to celebrate Baird’s career and legacy as Foreign Minister (it will be very amusing, should it happen, to watch anyone try to claim that Baird was a great Minister of the Environment). One of the more bizarre premises of respectability politics is the idea that any real criticism invariably offends and debases the dignity of its target. So let me preface what I’m about to say with the following: I don’t know John Baird and I expect that, like a great many people in public life, he’s perfectly cordial one-on-one (I’ve heard this from several people who do know him). Someone being likeable personally does not preclude them being destructive politically.

And Baird has, it seems to me, been integral to three of the most destructive ideological revolutions in Canadian politics: the neoliberal transformation of Canada’s largest province, the degradation of the House of Commons, and the ongoing reconfiguration of Canada’s foreign policy and domestic self-image. With all this in mind, here are a few thoughts on John Baird’s political career and legacy in these three areas:

-Baird entered politics as part of Mike Harris’s “Common Sense Revolution”, a political wave engineered by a new generation of movement conservatives (who built the Reform Party at the federal level) in conjunction with a number of Republican Party strategists. The powerful idiom of “Common Sense” attached a folksy charm to a socioeconomic program which reduced the rights and autonomy of huge sections of Ontario’s workforce, cut taxes for corporations and high earners, and gutted social and environmental regulation.

-A key component of this political agenda was the demonization of welfare recipients. “Common Sense”, as Ontario’s version of Thatcherism (John Baird’s cat, incidentally, is named after Margaret Thatcher) was an effective popular idiom because of its emphasis on “self sufficiency”. Thus, when John Baird as Minister of Community and Social Services sought to get people off of welfare he deemed it an opportunity for them “get back into the workforce and [become] productive citizens.” Bill 142, which Baird helped to create, forced welfare recipients to submit to drug and literacy tests in order to qualify.

-Lingering behind this “Common Sense” policy was the notion that poverty is essentially the result of moral failing – an idea that first became popular in Victorian Britain and later found new life as a favourite talking point of Ronald Reagan’s – and that the poor, far from being able to blame structural unemployment and deindustrialization for their condition, have nobody to blame but themselves. This simultaneous emphasis on self-sufficiency and the depraved “culture of poverty” has allowed politicians like Baird to claim that their assaults on already meagre social security programs are actually liberating while all the while channeling vulgar prejudices designed to make the lower middle class dislike the extremely poor as much as they do.

-During Baird’s tenure in the Harris government, hundreds of thousands of people were taken out of welfare and put on workfare – a neoliberalized version of welfare (also, incidentally, originating in Victorian Britain) which forces recipients into “community employment places” in order to receive their payments. Similarly justified by the superficially coherent idea that individuals receiving state benefits should have to “give back”, this is less a form of welfare than it is a modern version of indentured servitude in which the state effectively subsidizes low-paying employers by giving them labour on the cheap and compels those in the most precarious situations to work in order to earn their poverty. This same government, which claimed to oppose the “nanny state”, also produced a “menu” purporting to show that a single individual could dine on only $90 dollars a month – the nutritional value of the items on said menu were less than what’s required for Prisoners of War under the Geneva Convention.

-The Harris government’s tax cut regime, though not specifically Baird’s domain, was a part of this overall vision. Freeing up large amounts of capital from taxation, the government declared its intention to liberate rich individuals and profitable corporations (just as it had “liberated” the poor from “dependency”!). This hints at the double-meaning incorporated by the conservative invocation of the word “incentive”: the rich, it is suggested, will not work or be productive unless they are given more money, while the poor will not work or be productive unless money is taken away from them and a martial discipline is imposed on their daily lives. An “incentive”, in this view, is simultaneously the offer of a tax break to high earners and the threat of the workhouse to those who earn little or nothing.

Involved directly and indirectly in the above, John Baird was one of the chief ideological and political architects of this transformation. Seeing an opportunity, he entered federal politics in 2006 and became a cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government…

-In parliament and in government Baird, who is often called “partisan”, has been one of the frontmen for the Harperite degradation of the House of Commons as a space for genuine political and ideological debate. “Partisanship” doesn’t quite do justice to his hysterical performances in Question Period or the absurdly swarmy way he has tended to respond to opponents. Whatever his role – President of the Treasury Board, Environment Minister, Minister of Transport – Baird has been one of the Harper government’s chief polemicists and enforcers, as eager to mount assaults on the truth as he was to mount them against social security in Ontario. If there’s anything positive to be said about Baird here, it’s that he fulfilled this role far more effectively than any of his hamfisted successors (Dean Del Mastro may soon face jail time; both Pierre Polievre and Paul Calandra eventually became too embarrassing for even the Conservative Party of Canada to earnestly deploy during Question Period with much frequency).

This brings us to Baird’s tenure as Foreign Minister, the post he ultimately resigned from. One aspect of the Canadian media assessment that I agree with is the suggestion that this was the most serious incarnation of John Baird as a politician. I concur, though perhaps on divergent grounds. My sense is that Baird’s talents were being wasted on empty parliamentary polemicism. The PMO seemed to think this too, eventually realizing his demagogy might be better spent as part of its effort to rebrand Canada on the world stage.

-It was this that brought us the more “respectable” and less “partisan” Baird, who was less boisterous though arguably more demagogic. This John Baird would be a key part of the Conservatives’ new foreign policy; one that has less to do with achieving specific objectives internationally than it does with reshaping Canada’s image inside and out. In rhetoric, it has been more militant, more decisive, and more prone to invoking overtly moralistic language than its earlier Liberal or Conservative variants. This development, welcome at least in the abstract to anyone who prefers decisive moral language to wishy-washy equivocation, has mostly involved cultivating selective outrage around international issues of concern to current or prospective Conservative constituencies and the quite aggressive downplaying of offences committed by official allies. It is this hypocrisy that has allowed John Baird to crusade against human rights abuses in Iran, while celebrating the legacy of Saudi Arabia’s king and saying nothing about the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of arms shipments Canada makes to his country every year.

-The tokenistic and domestically-driven internationalism which Baird has helped to promote has given us some real absurdities, such as a monument in Ottawa honouring the “victims of communism” (suppose we had erected a monument to the victims of Christianity to honour the casualties of the Crusades?) or the “Office of Religious Freedom”, which won the endorsement of none other than former British Prime Minister turned globetrotting rogue statesman Tony Blair.

-This is a foreign policy which seems directed, more or less explicitly, at Canada’s self image. Conservatives have never really warmed to the institutions created during the postwar period and have successfully dismantled quite a few of them (with a little help from the Chretien and Martin Liberals, mind you). This hostility is partly towards the institutions themselves, but the greatest ideological antipathy is evoked by the national values they are said, accurately or not, to enshrine. For all its problems, Canada’s national healthcare system remains a real source of pride and solidarity for a huge number of the citizens who make use of it and is probably still the Canadian Left’s greatest achievement – it is a testament to the robustness of Medicare that the Conservatives have opted to bleed it dry rather than to launch a full frontal assault (the same can be said of their approach to the CBC).

-Not being in a strong enough position to uniformly dismantle such institutions, the Conservatives have instead tried to supplant the values they are taken to represent. This strategy has involved no less than an attempt to construct an entirely new national ethos, built around institutions like the military and the monarchy, which are seen to represent that bemusing combination of twee nostalgia and macho chest-beating which is so precious to the modern conservative psyche. The more bellicose foreign policy championed by Baird has been integral to this overall project.

-For all his efforts in these regards, Baird’s greatest institutional legacy may be the consequences of his assault on pluralism at the Foreign Affairs Department and work to reconfigure its traditional objectives. This legacy is registered by three significant developments:

  1. Helping to lead the Conservative government’s attack on the arms-length organization Rights and Democracy because it dared give grants to organizations critical of the government of Israel, and ensuring its closure.
  2. Overseeing the closure of CIDA and its merger with Foreign Affairs in order to realign Canada’s development strategy with the interests of mining, agriculture, and banking.
  3. Significant cuts in foreign aid worth more than $300 million; the cancellation of aid programs in Cambodia, China, Malawi, Nepal, Niger, Rwanda, Zambia, Zimbabwe coupled with significant reductions in aid to Bolivia, Pakistan, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Tanzania and South Africa.

Anyways, I’m sure he’s a nice guy.

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