John Baird, master of wedge politics

After 20 years in politics, John Baird is retiring. This leaves quite a hole in the Conservative Party, since Baird was by far the most effective practitioner at the federal level of a special brand of political strategy known as “wedge politics.”

What’s that you say? Baird a master of wedge politics? He didn’t seem to be all that divisive a figure… Not like Harper. In what way was he a master of wedge politics?

The problem is that most people don’t really understand how “wedge politics” works. Or more specifically, they don’t grasp the fact that it is a two-pronged strategy. The first prong, in which you find “hot button” issues that sharply distinguish your party from all of the other contenders, is the more well-known face of wedge politics. But that’s only part of the game. There is a second prong, which is arguable the more important one. And it was as a practitioner of this second prong that Baird truly shone. The fact that most people don’t even know about this second prong, and never realized that Baird was working it, shows just how good he was. After all, a major part of being really good at political strategy is making it so that no one even notices you’re executing a strategy.

So what is this mysterious second prong?

To do effective wedge politics, not only do you have to find your own wedge issues – positions where you can take a stand that not only differentiates your party from all the others, but also wins you more votes than it loses you – you have to figure out what your opponent’s wedge issues are, and do what you can to neutralize them. In other words, in the same way that you are trying to differentiate your party from everyone else on issues that you think are winners for you, all of the other parties will be trying to differentiate themselves from you on issues that they think are winners for them. If you think that they are right about these issues – your party is locked into a stance that is genuinely unpopular, and so the issue is a potential vote-winner for the opposition – then you need to do what you can to undermine their wedge. The most important way of doing this is by de-differentiating your party from the opposition. This is usually done by “blowing smoke.” The objective is to make enough noises that sound like the noises being made by the other political parties that the standard “low-information” voter is unable to tell the difference. The trick is to blow just enough smoke to confuse the average voter, but not so much that your own base begins to think that you’ve actually abandoned your true position.

This is what Baird was good at – superlatively good at.

Understanding how this strategy works helps to explain a phenomenon that mystifies many people. The media often does polls in advance of elections, asking Canadians what issues matter to them most. The list usually comes back with the same half-dozen issues arranged in slightly different ways, depending on what’s been happening in the past month. Health care, economy, education, environment, etc. And yet strangely, come election time, none of this seems to make any difference. A majority may rank “health care” as their number one concern, but then don’t seem to vote based on the attitudes of the various parties towards health care. That’s actually why politicians ignore these surveys – because the issues that people think are objectively important are not necessarily, or even usually, the issues the drive voting behaviour. (My colleague Peter Loewen has done some really interesting research on which issues actually have the ability to change votes in Canada – and it’s not the big stuff that you get on the list of “major concerns.”) If you ask people why their stance on a particular issue didn’t affect their vote, the answer you often get is that they don’t see any difference between the parties when it comes to their approach to that issue. (Most obviously, health care is often the number-one concern of Canadians, but has been entirely neutralized as an election issue, because very few people perceive any difference between the parties in their approach to it.)

Now in some cases, that’s because there aren’t any major differences between the parties on an issue (health care has become that way, now that privatization is off the table). But in some cases, there are in fact huge differences between the parties, but many people don’t perceive them, or perceive them to be less stark than they are, because all of the parties on the receiving end of a “wedge” have been doing what they can to de-differentiate themselves, in order to deny their opponents the benefit of that issue. The clearest example of this in federal politics right now is the environment, where there are huge and important differences between all the parties. The Conservative party is basically anti-environment, in the sense that they reject the basic economic argument for environmental regulation. (Stephen Harper, it may be recalled, is the one who described the Kyoto Accord as a “socialist scheme.”) The standard view within the party, as far as I can tell, is based on a simple contrast between “free markets” and “government,” with the thought that one must choose between the two. Being in favour of the free market means being opposed to government “intrusions.” Environmental regulation is an intrusion of this sort, and is thus favoured only by “socialists.” Being in favour of the market means being opposed to environmental regulation, and so wanting to reduce or eliminate it as much as possible.

To get a sense of where the Conservative back-bench is on environmental issues, consider the following report to her constituents written by Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant (here):

While many people support the United Nations for its ‘peacekeeping’ efforts, hardly anyone knows the organization has very specific land use policies they would like to see implemented in every village, town, city, county, province and nation. The specific plan is called United Nations Agenda 21 Sustainable Development, which has its basis in Communitarianism… A non-governmental organization headquartered in Toronto called the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives, ICLEI, is tasked with carrying out the goals of Agenda 21 worldwide. In a nutshell, the plan calls for government to eventually take control of all land use removing decision making from the hands of private property owners. It is assumed people are not good stewards of their land and “the government” will do a better job if it is in total control. Individual rights in general are to give way to the needs of communities as determined by the governing body… The push will be for people to get off of the land, become more dependent, and go into the cities. People will have to move from private homes and into single dwellings like apartments, as homeownership will become largely unaffordable the way it is in many urban areas like Toronto today. More extreme measures like a federal liberal carbon tax will force people out of private cars and onto public transit that only exists in cities.

Okay, so this is crazy talk – environmentalism as UN plot to take away our freedoms, sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids, etc. I’m dwelling on it just to emphasize how deeply out of step the Conservative party is with the median Canadian voter on environmental issues. This is why no one in any position of power has ever stood up and tried to explain the government’s philosophy on the environment, or to justify its deregulatory agenda. They’ve decided that it’s an issue that they could lose votes over. So the number one job of the Minister of the Environment is to appear to care deeply about the environment. In other words, the job involves blowing a lot of smoke, in order the neutralize the environment as a potential wedge issue for the opposition.

Looking back over the history of Conservative Environment Ministers, Leona Aglukkaq, Peter Kent and John Baird, it’s obvious that Baird was way better at it, head and shoulders above the others. Aglukkaq comes across as Palin-lite, particularly when anything having to do with hunting comes up. Kent was just way too earnest, and sounded as though he was confused about what his job entailed. Baird, on the other hand, took such obvious pleasure in sowing confusion, or just screwing around with people – showing up at all sorts of eco-conferences, hobnobbing with environmentalists, getting into a little tiff with David Suzuki. His master-stroke was the decision to join the “ban the bulb” bandwagon, generating a series of highly effective photo-ops:


It’s as though he looked at the list of things that environmentalists were demanding and said “Okay, you want environmental regulations? Let’s take the dumbest, most intrusive, and least effective policy and pass that!” Soon the useful idiots at Sun News were writing editorials condemning Baird for his “environmental activism,” Gallant started a campaign to reverse the ban (with the proceeds, strangely, going to the Conservative party). The net effect of all this was just to muddy the waters, making it really hard for low-information voters to see the difference between the parties. (After all, the consequences of closing down the Experimental Lakes Area research station are entirely invisible to the average Canadian, but the fact that you can no longer buy 100-watts bulbs is right there, in your face.)

The thing about Baird was that he was constantly doing this sort of stuff, and he took obvious pleasure in it. He wasn’t just a bullshitter, he brought a certain exuberance to the task – a quality lacking in almost all of his colleagues. I can recall during the recent Ontario election campaign, when Tim Hudak made the foolish mistake of promising to cut 100,000 civil service jobs, Baird was quick to announce that the federal Conservative government would never do such a thing, and that he would never allow a return to the “dark days” of the Chretien-Martin era, when the public service was subject to savage cuts. This was classic Baird – a totally disorienting remark, aimed at sowing confusion, making it unclear which party stood for what.

Thinking back over the trajectory of Baird’s career reminds me, perhaps idiosyncratically, of Stephen Fry’s comments on the greatness of ABBA. As Fry puts it: “One of the things that you enjoy most in anything is when it is better than it needs to be.”

Baird was not just good at blowing smoke, he was much, much better at it than he needed to be. Listening to him during question period, comparing him to his peers, was like listening to an ABBA chorus. The exultant joy! He may have been a cynic, but at least he was a fabulous one.


John Baird, master of wedge politics — 1 Comment

  1. Peter Kent may actually have thought his job had something to do with protecting the environment.

    I recall a story where it came out that behind the scenes he spent a lot of his time trying to explain real climate science to the ignorant deniers in his caucus. It was one of those super disturbing peeks behind the conservative curtain. A lonely voice of scientific sanity, no wonder he didn’t last in the job.