John Baird's resignation produces a lot to cut through

John Baird's unexpected decision to leave politics this week produced immediate speculation that went beyond the simple explanation of a desire for change after 20 years. And that's where the job of political communications gets frustrating, writes former PMO spokesman Andrew MacDougall.

Sometimes, the simplest explanation is the correct one - but try telling that to the skeptics

Foreign Minister John Baird, centre, is congratulated in the House of Commons by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative colleagues after announcing his resignation Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

There are two razors to keep handy when analyzing the cut and thrust of politics.

One is Occam's, which says that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, and the other is Hanlon's, which stipulates you should never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity.

Applying these filters to John Baird's sudden and unexpected decision this week to leave politics would certainly make the news less interesting. But where's the fun in that?

Occam and Hanlon's razors aren't designed to sell newspapers or produce compelling commentary, and so byzantine plots and treachery rush in to take their place.

Baird, it was speculated, must have fallen out with the prime minister. There could be, we were told, scandals coming, or perhaps (insert pet theory here). There's always, wink-wink, a story behind the story. Of course, these theories are usually what critics and observers would like to project onto the government, and not necessarily an accurate representation of what's happening within it.

In fairness to those who opined on Baird's departure the night it leaked, there wasn't much being said to help them contextualize the decision. This to me is the surest proof that it was an unplanned loose lip slipping somewhere inside the Queensway (Hanlon's stupidity) that produced a sufficient smokescreen to obscure the explanation (Occam's simplicity), which was delivered by Baird in the House of Commons the next morning.

It turns out that 20 years of frontline politics was enough and that the death of a friend prompted a rethink of his priorities.

Sure, but does anyone really believe that?

Unwelcome spadework

This is where the job of political communications gets frustrating: if the simplest explanation is the correct one, how do you convince the most skeptical people in the world (political journalists) that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar? Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence, etc.

The answer is you don't; only the dull passage of time will cure the conspiratorial mind-set. Days, weeks, and then months will pass without a scandal surfacing or evidence of Harper-Baird disharmony and then, and only then, will the skeptics take the news at face value. Mr. Baird wanted a new challenge while he was still young.

Case closed.

But it's not case closed for the government, who now need to find a suitable replacement to handle a world that features depraved jihadis, a revanchist cold warrior, Germans and Greeks at financial loggerheads, and a president who can't — or won't — pronounce on a pipeline. That's some hole to fill, and the prime minister would rather not have a spade in his hand at this point in the parliamentary cycle.

And then there are the comparatively minor communications considerations: how do you replace a very capable politician and stalwart of your House and scrum roster?

The short answer is that you don't. You can only hope the prime minister appoints someone with the requisite skills and appetite for the fight.

What made John Baird such an effective communicator was his demeanour. Sometimes a twinkle in your eye can help carry a message more than the words that actually come out of your mouth. A happy warrior is an effective political warrior. No matter how grim or serious the subject, or challenging the task, John Baird kept a positive attitude, a level head, and delivered.

No matter who is chosen to take the helm at the Pearson building, the same pundits who sifted through the tea leaves to "explain" the Baird's sudden departure will be on hand to elucidate the meaning behind the new arrival.

Just remember to bring your razors to their commentary.

Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall.


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