Don't be surprised to see Larry Smith in cabinet soon

The new senator might be tagged for a sports portfolio

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas came early for Larry Smith, who was named to the Senate on Monday along with Don Meredith, an evangelical minister and youth activist in Toronto's black community.

Both Smith and Meredith have taken the ritual pledge to support eight-year term limits and the election of senators from their province. But this is boilerplate -absent a constitutional amendment of seven provinces and 50 per cent of the population, Stephen Harper can't change the composition of the Senate, at least not without a reference to the Supreme Court.

What Harper is really saying with these appointments is that he intends to be competitive in Montreal and Toronto, the two largest cities in the country, where the Conservatives don't hold a single seat.

The Greater Toronto Area consists of two segments: the suburban area-code 905 belt where the Conservatives are already competitive and where former Ontario police commissioner Julian Fantino won a by-election in the former Liberal bastion of Vaughan last month; and the city itself, between Highway 401 and Lake Ontario, where the Conservatives have not won a single seat since the free-trade election of 1988.

Smith's appointment has the appearance of being the first in a potentially game-changing chain of events.

Having known him for 35 years, it's very difficult for me to imagine him leaving the presidency of the Alouettes to seek new challenges, as he put it, and that new challenge being the Senate of Canada.

It's very easy to see a scenario under which Smith is appointed to cabinet in a January shuffle as minister responsible for the Montreal region and as minister of state for, say, sport.

As a forerunner to that announcement, Smith has already promised to resign from the Senate and run for a West Island seat in the next election.

Harper has done this before. You can look it up under Michael Fortier, named to the Senate and cabinet as Montreal minister by Harper in 2006, and defeated in his bid for an off-island seat in 2008.

The riding that the Conservatives have earmarked for Smith is Lac-Saint-Louis, last won for the Conservatives by Bob Layton (Jack's dad) in the Mulroney sweeps of 1984 and 1988. Smith is a lifelong resident of Hudson, just next door, and no one can accuse him of being a parachute. But no one should assume the Liberal incumbent, Francis Scarpallegia, would be a pushover. He's an extremely diligent MP, backed by the equity of the Liberal brand. But Smith is a brand in his own right.

And while the Conservatives don't have a ground game to speak of, all the available evidence suggests Smith is quite capable of building his own. What he's done with the Alouettes, taking them into the community over the last decade and more, speaks for itself. The organization is universally regarded as the class act of the Canadian Football League and the model for competitive excellence.

Nor it is difficult to see Smith representing Montreal in cabinet. While his origins are in the English-speaking community, his entire career has been about outreach to the city's French-speaking majority. He's very well-regarded by the francophone media. And being CEO of the Alouettes has given him a good understanding of Montreal Inc.

The present minister for Montreal, Christian Paradis, is from down the road in Thetford Mines and probably wouldn't know the difference between Guy and Cote des Neiges.

If you asked what experience Smith has in politics, the answer would be none.

But that hasn't stopped him before -Larry has never been a shrinking violet.

He didn't know anything about the newspaper business when he was named publisher of The Gazette in 2002, but he did have an understanding of marketing.

And he actually gave serious consideration to running for the Conservative leadership in 2004, without ever having so much as attended a single Tory event in his life.

But last summer, he emceed a barbecue for Harper in the West Island riding of Dollard and the Conservatives were actually able to turn out a crowd of 1,000 people. You don't see that on the West Island every day.

And last month, Smith sat beside Harper at the Grey Cup in Edmonton. They weren't just talking football. It's the fourth quarter of this minority House, and you should expect Harper to send Smith in with a play. He's been there before.

And with that, Merry Christmas!

Or as Zara, now 18 months, said at lunch the other day: "Merry Chwismas!"

 
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