Baird lauds Scheer and Dief during stop in Prince Albert

Former Conservative cabinet minister and self-professed "big Diefenbaker fan" John Baird talks with tour guides at Diefenbaker House on Saturday.

Former cabinet minister John Baird has his disagreements with Andrew Scheer, but that hasn’t stopped him from throwing his full support behind the newly elected Conservative Party leader.

Baird, a longtime Ottawa MP who served as the Minster of the Environment, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure under Stephen Harper, said he was “very comfortable” with Scheer’s leadership, as well as the overall direction of the party.

“I think everybody is just happy the leadership race is over with and we’ve got a leader that people are rallying behind,” Baird said during a stop in Prince Albert on Saturday. “Whether it’s western populists, social conservatives, economic conservatives like myself, or Red Tories, it’s going to bring everyone together.

Since announcing his bid for leadership of the Conservative Party last September, Scheer was often dubbed “Stephen Harper with a smile.” Critics of the new leader focused in on his social conservatism, but Baird said voters shouldn’t worry about the party moving further to the right.

“I’m pretty conservative, but I’m not a social conservative. I’m pro-choice. I’m one of the few (Conservative MP’s) who voted for gay marriage 12 years ago, and I’m very comfortable with Andrew as a leader,” Baird said. “On day one he said he wouldn’t revisit abortion or gay marriage, which in 2017 I think is a smart decision.”

Barring any future by-elections, the Conservatives will enter the next federal campaign in 2019 with 99 seats. Baird said he thinks the party is in a good position to form another government, pointing out that the Liberals had only 34 seats before they won the last election.

“Sometimes leadership campaigns can be really divisive and there are deep wounds, but I don’t think there are (any),” he said. “Everyone seems pretty happy.”

Prince Albert MP Randy Hoback joined Baird during his visit on Saturday. Like Baird, Hoback was happy with the party’s direction, calling Scheer a “bright, young leader,” who MPs were “excited to get behind.”

“I thought there were areas where it would be tough for him to gain support, and he not only gained it, he actually grew in those areas,” Hoback said. “I think he’ll grow even further as we get into election time.”

Hoback predicted the party would see gains coast-to-coast in the next election, particularly in Quebec, thanks to Maxime Bernier’s rising profile. He also predicted a Conservative sweep in his home province.

“We have 14 ridings in Saskatchewan. I think they’re all going to go Conservative the next time around,” he said.

Baird on Diefenbaker: “Larger-than-life character”

While Baird did attend some party events while in Saskatchewan, his main purpose was to visit the home of one of his political heroes.

Baird is a self-proclaimed huge fan of former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, and was eager to visit the restored Diefenbaker House on 19th Street West.

“I think he was so ahead of his time as a civil libertarian,” Baird said of Diefenbaker, who won federal elections as the Progressive Conservative leader in 1957 and ’58. “The Bill of Rights was a real landmark in Canada.”

Baird has been a fan of Diefenbaker since he was a boy, calling him a “transformational” leader who helped turn Western Canada into a conservative stronghold.

He lauded Diefenbaker for his support of individual rights, like his stance against apartheid in South Africa, and expressed sadness that the legacy of Canada’s 13th Prime Minister isn’t celebrated more often.

“He was the last of the old-time politicians,” Baird said. “He went and toured the country by train and gave off the cuff speeches. He was an original, larger-than-life character.”

@kerr_jas •