Why everyone in the Conservative Party should want John Baird to run

This column is an opinion by Kory Teneycke. He is a former director of communications for prime minister Stephen Harper, managed the recent Ontario PC Party Campaign, and is currently a partner at Rubicon Strategy. Teneycke has declared he will remain neutral in the federal Conservative leadership campaign and has recused himself from work Rubicon is providing for the Peter MacKay campaign. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Leadership races are an opportunity for political parties to course-correct. They are a place to test new policy approaches and hopefully capture the imagination of Canadians. At their best, they are made-for-TV electoral death matches. They are exciting!

At least they are supposed to be.

It is hard to imagine a race more boring than this one.

Only one heavyweight contender – Peter MacKay – has shown up for this Conservative Party Leadership contest. Which is one more than ran in the last one.

Most notably absent this time: Rona Ambrose, Brad Wall, Jean Charest and Pierre Poilievre. All would have been formidable opponents – and in the case of Ambrose, the odds-on winner if only she had entered the race.

The only person left standing in the way of a complete MacKay coronation is his political doppelganger, Erin O’Toole. 

Conservative leadership candidate Erin O’Toole says the race is not a coronation for rival Peter MacKay. 8:47

As columnist Paul Wells (among others) has pointed out, if you strip away the marketing, you’d require a microscope to distinguish the policy differences between MacKay and O’Toole. Both are sons of long-time politicians and come from the same old-Tory wing of the party. They even speak the same strained French.

One was the Minister of Defence and the other served in the Air Force. However, when this race for political Top-Gun started, many felt MacKay was starring as Maverick and O’Toole as his less-charismatic wingman Goose.

Or at least they did.

O’Toole has been running a surprisingly savvy, effective campaign.

Meanwhile, the past couple weeks have been marked by MacKay making unforced policy errors and communications gaffes, and lacking a coherent message. 

His campaign has displayed the same early symptoms as Joe Biden’s U.S. Democrat bid  – a severe case of “front-runner-itis.”

MacKay has been avoiding interviews, choosing safe platitudes and rhetorical bromides over hard policy announcements and making sharp contrasts with his opponents. The temptation to play it safe has cut many a front-runner down to size – some it destroys altogether (as may be the case with Biden).

Peter MacKay addresses the crowd at a federal Conservative leadership forum in Halifax on Feb. 8. His campaign has been marked by several missteps in recent weeks. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

As in any arena, strong competition breeds strong competitors. A field of strong candidates fight more forcefully for their ideas. Their weaknesses get tested.

And through the fire of a leadership contest – the hotter the better – you harden them into steel.

Step forward John Baird.

Baird cut his teeth as a Young Turk in Ontario premier Mike Harris’ government, later moving to Ottawa to become Stephen Harper’s reliable Mr. Fix-it. In both governments he had a hard-earned reputation as a fiscal hawk. He is without question an instant A-list competitor.

John Baird, seen here speaking in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Feb. 3, 2015, is a former Conservative foreign minister with a reputation as a fiscal hawk. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Baird would be a comfortable choice for many conservatives with Canadian Alliance/Reform Party lineage.

He was briefly Pierre Poilievre’s campaign chair and would have access to a ready-made team, augmented by those who were pushing Rona Ambrose to join the race.

Perhaps most interesting is what Baird could put together in Quebec. Jean Charest walked away after testing the waters, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t appetite for a leading candidate with greater proficiency in both official languages.

Since leaving public office, Baird has kept up his ties and profile in the political world. He served on Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s transition team, and more recently conducted the autopsy of Andrew Scheer’s federal election campaign (it has yet to be shared with party members).

He has also maintained strong friendships with Premier Jason Kenney and former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Team MacKay shouldn’t despair, it is early days and there’s lots of time to get their act together.

And O’Toole should keep swinging for the fences – he is looking better than he ever has.

But regardless if they are for MacKay, O’Toole, Marilyn Gladu, or none of the above, everyone in the Conservative Party should want Baird to join and make it a more dynamic race.


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