Baird speech prompted privy-coun­cil panic

Civil ser­vants used to clar­ify pipe­line com­ment

Winnipeg Free Press - SundayXtra - - NEWS LOCAL I CANADA - By Alexan­der Panetta

WASH­ING­TON — A re­cent Wash­ing­ton speech in which For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter John Baird de­manded quick ac­tion on the Key­stone XL pipe­line ap­pears to have prompted con­sid­er­able anx­i­ety back home in Ot­tawa.

A pan­icked search for clar­ity about what the min­is­ter had ac­tu­ally said wound up prompt­ing an email chain that in­volved no fewer than 17 civil ser­vants.

The cause of con­cern was a sin­gle line in Baird’s speech in which he sug­gested even a quick re­jec­tion of the project would be bet­ter than the on­go­ing un­cer­tainty and foot drag­ging sur­round­ing the long-de­layed project.

Vir­tu­ally ev­ery news or­ga­ni­za­tion that cov­ered the Jan­uary speech, Cana­dian and Amer­i­can alike, ze­roed in on that head­line-grab­bing re­mark. So, ap­par­ently, did some of Key­stone XL’s many sup­port­ers within govern­ment.

Emails ob­tained by The Cana­dian Press un­der the Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion Act il­lus­trate a sense of panic at the high­est level of govern­ment: the Privy Coun­cil Of­fice, the cen­tral bu­reau­cracy that serves the prime min­is­ter and cab­i­net.

In a se­ries of emails marked “Ur­gent,” one of­fi­cial re­quested doc­u­mented ev­i­dence that Baird had ac­tu­ally said what he was re­ported to have said.

“I need that quote — need to know when he said it,” said one mes­sage from a se­nior an­a­lyst in the PCO’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions depart­ment. “Need it by 8:30 (a.m.) please.”

The 17 people in­volved in the email chain came from var­i­ous federal de­part­ments both in Ot­tawa and at the Cana­dian em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton. The hunt for Baird’s re­marks ap­par­ently lasted into the next day, even though his speech was car­ried live on Cana­dian net­work tele­vi­sion.

The speech had also been cov­ered by nu­mer­ous do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions and a tran­script was pro­vided to re­porters and also posted on the web­site of the Depart­ment of For­eign Af­fairs.

“Please for­ward to me ASAP, as re­quested yes­ter­day,” said an­other email from PCO, the morn­ing af­ter the speech. “Need it as quickly as you can get it.” The of­fi­cial ap­peared es­pe­cially con­cerned that Baird had said, ex­plic­itly, that a “no” on Key­stone would be bet­ter than si­lence. Here’s what he ac­tu­ally said:

“With the con­struc­tion sea­son com­ing up, I don’t want a sin­gle worker sit­ting at home when they could be get­ting a knock on the door say­ing, ‘You got a great job,’ ” Baird told the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce on Jan. 16.

“So if there’s one mes­sage I’m go­ing to be pro­mot­ing on this trip, it’s this: the time for Key­stone is now. I’ll go fur­ther — the time for a de­ci­sion on Key­stone is now, even if it’s not the right one.”

The email chain from Jan­uary sug­gests the civil ser­vice de­ployed con­sid­er­able ef­fort to as­sist PCO.

“Mul­ti­ple people work­ing on your re­quest,” one For­eign Af­fairs em­ployee replied. “Re­gret­tably this is tak­ing more time than it should.”

One diplo­mat asked whether they re­ally wanted an au­dio file, in ad­di­tion to the tran­script, be­cause “people are work­ing very hard on this.”

For rea­sons not en­tirely clear in the email chain, the panic even­tu­ally abated.

“We’re still in­ter­ested in see­ing it, but at this point you can dial down the ur­gency,” said the PCO of­fi­cial. “Later in the day is fine, no one needs to skip a cof­fee break over this.”

On the sub­stance of the file, the Cana­dian govern­ment didn’t wind up get­ting what it wanted. Later in Baird’s trip, he ap­peared at a podium with his U.S. coun­ter­part John Kerry, and the sec­re­tary of state ex­plained that he would take his time to go through the moun­tain of pub­lic com­ments gen­er­ated by the Key­stone con­sul­ta­tion.

Thir­teen weeks later, the U.S. govern­ment sus­pended the ap­proval process, not only be­cause of the pub­lic feed­back but also be­cause a Ne­braska court dis­pute had put the pipe­line route in limbo.

Mean­while, Baird’s any-an­swer-will-do re­mark ap­pears to have van­ished en­tirely from the Cana­dian govern­ment’s hymn book.

Asked this week whether it was still the federal po­si­tion that a quick re­jec­tion was prefer­able to a later ap­proval, a Baird spokesman replied in an email: “Our Govern­ment knows that Key­stone XL will cre­ate jobs and eco­nomic growth on both sides of the bor­der while in­creas­ing North Amer­i­can en­ergy se­cu­rity.”

“The U.S. State Depart­ment has de­ter­mined, on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions, it will be en­vi­ron­men­tally sound, and we are con­fi­dent the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion will make the right de­ci­sion.”

— The Cana­dian Press


John Baird’s Jan­uary speech to the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce sent civil ser­vants scram­bling.

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