National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

On the morning of Thursday, December 6, 2008, veteran CBC parliamentary journalist Don Newman exposed for all Canadians the reflexive contempt the Harper Conservatives hold for Canada’s parliamentary form of government – a reflexive contempt that continues to grow and fuel every new parliamentary outrage.

Writes Newman in the first paragraph of his bestselling autobiography Welcome to the Broadcast:

“Outrage comes naturally to him (Baird.) But on the morning of Thursday, December 6, 2008, John Baird was ready to outdo himself,” Newman writes, quoting Baird: ‘We’ll go over the heads of the members of Parliament, go over the heads, frankly, of the Governor-General; go right to the Canadian people,’ Baird fumed, “telling me face to face, one on one, on live television across the country,”

Continued Newman: “In the foyer of the House that December 4, he was neither genial nor bombastic. He was determined. On a repetitive message track obviously worked out with the Prime Minister’s Office, he kept pushing the idea that in minority governments, coalitions are somehow illegitimate, and saying the Conservatives would go over the heads of Parliament and the Governor General, calling for a campaign of civil disobedience. This in spite of the fact the Conservatives themselves had signed a letter with the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP to make an arrangement with the NDP for a coalition government after a Liberal confidence defeat.”

Newman asked Baird if the Conservatives remained in office and passed the budget with only the support of the NDP whether it would be an illegitimate budget. Baird replied: “It will be a budget with the maple leaf on it.”

Fast forward seven years to this week and Baird the parliamentary brawler has become Baird the senior statesman winding up an illustrious career amid almost unanimous approval and admiration.

Almost. But not quite.

Baird’s stint in the cabinet of the far-right Mike Harris Ontario Conservatives in the 1990s gave the public a preview of the mean-spiritedness and downright nastiness that continues to animate Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives.

Baird joined Premier Harris’s cabinet on June 17, 1999 as Minister of Community and Social Services and so responsible for implementing and expanding Ontario’s workfare program.

His first press conference as a minister was held in July, 1999 and highlighted the Harris government’s record in reducing welfare rolls. Baird claimed 15,000 people had left the system since Ontario introduced workfare and argued that the government’s policy was therefore a success although he lacked information on the number of workfare recipients who had actually found jobs and did not account for the 40 per cent of recipients who had just been cut from the list.

His ministry reported that 10,600 workfare placements had been created in the first six months of 1999, a figure the Toronto Star claimed was significantly lower than government predictions. Yet Baird continued with workfare and promised that the proportion of welfare recipients on workfare would be increased from 15 per cent to 30 per cent.

In January 2000, Baird unveiled a series of initiatives designed to reduce fraud and misuse in the welfare system. A welfare fraud hotline was established and anyone convicted of welfare fraud would risk receiving a lifetime ban from the program.

Baird supported mandatory drug-testing for welfare recipients and argued that those who refused such tests should be at risk of have their assistance cut off. He introduced a policy initiative to this effect at a press conference in late 2000. To make his point, he dramatically cast a box of syringes onto the floor and said that his department planned to “stop people from shooting their welfare cheque up their arm, and to help them shoot up the ladder of success”.

In early 2001, Baird announced that his government’s proposed drug-testing plan would be extended to identify welfare recipients addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol. He later announced that provincial welfare applicants would be required to pass a literacy test.

But the Harris government’s welfare policies came under scrutiny in August 2001 after a pregnant woman serving house arrest for welfare fraud died. The woman had been confined to her apartment for three months and reports indicated that her pregnancy was “exacerbated by sweltering conditions in her apartment”.

Responding to criticism, Baird said that he could not comment on the specifics of the case until a coroner’s inquest was completed. He also defended his government’s general policy on welfare issues. A subsequent inquest did not assign blame to the government for the woman’s death, but recommended that lifetime bans for fraud be eliminated, and that adequate food, housing and medication be provided to anyone under house arrest.

As a federal cabinet minister, Baird quickly became the “go to” minister, the one to be counted upon to use bombast and denunciation to intimidate any and all opponents – especially opposition MPs.

Take the case of Bev Oda and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) document. Oda, the minister responsible for CIDA, apparently took up her own pen to insert the word “NOT” to ensure the termination of funding for the highly-respected interdenominational human development agency Kairos.

While Oda sat silently in her parliamentary seat, Baird commenced his bombastic rant to turn Oda’s parliamentary outrage into “a brave and courageous decision.” The opposition thought otherwise and tabled a motion asking the Speaker of the House to rule on whether Oda breached parliamentary privilege. Of course it failed. But the Conservative message never deviates. We don’t consult, except with our own or like-minded. We don’t listen, except to those with whom we agree. In other words, we do whatever we want, whenever we want and when we want to.

 

Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.

She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.

She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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