| David Ljunggren |
OTTAWA (Reuters) – The sudden resignation of Canada’s foreign minister has revealed strains inside the ruling Conservatives and complicates their bid to extend a decade in power in elections this October.
John Baird – a key ally of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and an experienced campaigner – quit on Tuesday, saying he wanted to do something else after 20 years in politics.
But insiders said Baird had become increasingly frustrated with officials in Harper’s office, both on major issues and also over what he saw as excessive micro-management.
Baird, the sources said, unsuccessfully pushed for tougher measures against Moscow last year. He was also upset that Harper’s office would not allow him to use government jets more often when on official travel.
Just as significantly, two people familiar with Baird’s thinking said he had concluded the low-tax tough-on-crime Conservatives did not have a good chance of winning another majority in the next election.
“It’s better to leave now rather than being one of 35 ex-cabinet ministers suddenly seeking a job after the election,” said one of the people, who declined to be named citing the sensitivity of the matter.
The signs of dissent are highly unusual, since Harper – seeking to win a rare fourth consecutive election – has kept a very tight grip since coming to power in early 2006.
Baird’s loss is a political and strategic setback that comes at a tricky time.
Although the party has risen in the polls in recent months, it is still only neck-and-neck with the opposition Liberals of Justin Trudeau and looks on course to lose its parliamentary majority in the October polls.
Surveys suggest Trudeau’s party, which Harper paints as too soft on issues such as fighting terrorism, would only need few more percentage points in support to form a minority government.
Harper’s office, asked on Wednesday to respond to media reports of tensions with Baird, pointed to the prime minister’s statement on Tuesday praising the minister as a man who had “always been willing to do a lot of heavy lifting”.
The feisty 45-year-old operated almost as a de facto deputy to Harper, who trusted him with some of the toughest files in government.
After the Conservatives took power in 2006 he pushed through an act designed to curb the influence of money in Canadian politics and later served as environment minister, even though he opposed the Kyoto climate change protocol.
As the minister in charge of infrastructure he helped oversee the government’s multi-billion dollar stimulus package introduced after the 2008 recession. He was also a senior party operator in the province of Ontario, which accounts for 36 per cent of the 338 seats in the newly expanded House of Commons and where the Conservatives must do well if they want to stay in power.
Baird won his Ottawa seat three times by comfortable margins, counted among the party’s top performers in Parliament and was a popular speaker at party events.
One government source acknowledged Baird and Harper had not agreed on everything, saying it was natural they would sometimes have different views. The source dismissed, however, talk of political tensions and fears over the party’s prospects as “reckless innuendo and speculation” and played down the departure’s overall impact.
“There are also other capable competent accomplished people in cabinet.”
That said, Harper, who goes to the polls at a time when voters tend to tire of the existing government, can ill afford losses of politicians of Baird’s stature.
Already, 25 Conservative legislators – more than 15 per cent of the total – have said they will not run in the October election and more are certain to follow.
“There’s no doubt he leaves a big hole in caucus and government and cabinet to be filled and people like John Baird don’t come along every day,” government minister Peter Van Loan told reporters after the foreign minister’s announcement.
Another potential problem for Harper is that some Conservatives are starting to complain privately about the prime minister’s take-no-prisoners style, which could be a sign they might rethink their careers.
Speculation is mounting that Justice Minister Peter MacKay, a one-time Harper rival who like Baird has been in government since 2006, might leave. MacKay told reporters this week he would run again, but Baird made a similar vow last year.
Conservative discipline is such that no dissident would dare complain openly for fear of punishment and Harper is very unlikely to change that.
“We’re not going to compromise on principles,” said the government source when asked about unhappiness in party ranks.
Harper is in no immediate danger because unlike in Britain and Australia, where legislators choose prime ministers and can quickly depose them, political leaders in Canada are elected by party members at special congresses.