Stephen Harper is hoping that a new political star is rising in Quebec, with his appointment of former CFL commissioner and outgoing Montreal Alouettes president Larry Smith to the Senate and, in all likelihood, to cabinet next month.
Mr. Smith, well known in Quebec and nationally since his days as a fullback with the Canadian Football League team, is expected to announce as early as Tuesday that he will seek the nomination in the Montreal riding of Lac-Saint-Louis.
Although the Liberal incumbent, Francis Scarpaleggia, won the riding in 2008 by almost 12,000 votes, the Conservatives hope that Mr. Smith's prominence will bring success in the same way that former Ontario Provincial Police commissioner Julian Fantino's public profile helped the Conservatives take the riding of Vaughan from the Liberals in November's by-election.
But Mr. Harper clearly isn't prepared to wait for an election to make use of Mr. Smith's talents. By appointing him to the Senate now, he becomes available, along with Mr. Fantino, for a major cabinet shuffle that Mr. Harper plans for early January.
It's not speculation that Mr. Smith is prepared to indulge in. "Those questions will be determined over time." he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. " … I'm putting myself out there for public service, whatever its form."
There is considerable speculation within Quebec political circles that Mr. Harper intends to put Mr. Smith in charge of a national sports infrastructure fund that would help finance a Quebec City arena, a necessary condition for the National Hockey League to return to that city.
Without the funding, Mr. Harper stands to lose 11 MPs from the region. But without funding for other facilities across the country, as well, the Conservatives risk alienating their western base.
"To be honest, the Prime Minister and I have discussed so many issues that there isn't one that stands out," Mr. Smith insisted. "Although I was told, listening to the radio a couple of weeks ago, that I'm handling the arena file, it's the furthest thing from the truth at this point in time."
Mr. Harper is repeating a failed strategy, with hopes of a different result. Michael Fortier served in the Prime Minister's first cabinet from the Senate, but failed to win a seat in the 2008 election.
Mr. Smith's challenge will be no less daunting in Lac-Saint-Louis. "If we're competitive there, we're competitive in 20 other ridings," a long-time Quebec Tory organizer said with a laugh.
Mr. Smith's appointment, along with that of Don Meredith, a Pentecostal minister from Toronto and failed Conservative candidate, gives Mr. Harper 54 Conservative seats in the 105-seat Senate.
"It gives him the majority he always coveted," NDP Leader Jack Layton said. "The people wouldn't give it to him, so he did it in the Senate."
Mr. Layton decried the Conservatives use of senators to scuttle private-member's legislation passed in the House over the objections of the government.
Though Mr. Smith and Mr. Harper have known each other for some time, there were recent indications something was afoot.
The two sat together at last month's Grey Cup game - Mr. Harper was decked out in Edmonton Eskimos garb, as was his daughter Rachel - and afterward Mr. Smith brought the Prime Minister into the winning locker room for a word with the Alouettes.
"I had some conversations with the Prime Minister before the Grey Cup. It's not like we didn't know each other," Mr. Smith said, adding he first found out he was under consideration for a Senate post "three or four months ago."