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Audacious Senate appointments are Harper's gift to Layton

NDP chief Jack Layton arrives on Parliament Hill with his wife, Toronto MP Olivia Chow, to be sworn in as Leader of the Official Opposition on May 18, 2011.


It seemed, at first blush, a peculiar strategy.

On several occasions during last month's election debate, Jack Layton accused Stephen Harper of no longer being the same person he was back in his opposition days. Considering that the Reform-era version of Mr. Harper had rougher edges and much less mainstream appeal than the new one, having "changed" didn't seem like much of a vulnerability.

But as others have subsequently noted, Mr. Layton was targeting a very specific audience. It wasn't swing voters, or erstwhile Liberals who wound up switching to the NDP in large numbers. Rather, it was the populist crowd - particularly in Western Canada - that could potentially move from the Conservatives to the NDP if there's a sense that Mr. Harper has become too entitled during his time in Ottawa.

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There were few signs, on election day, that the message took. But Mr. Layton's efforts are worth keeping in mind, in light of what the Prime Minister has done very early in his new mandate.

If Mr. Harper was looking to signal once and for all that he's abandoned his populist roots, he could scarcely have done better than Wednesday's Senate appointments. Little more than two weeks ago, Josée Verner, Larry Smith and Fabian Manning were all rejected by voters in their ridings - the latter two after biding their time with supposedly temporary gigs in the Red Chamber. Now, all three will have the opportunity to serve in Parliament anyway, at what is theoretically a higher level, courtesy of the leader who only a few weeks ago was still extolling the virtues of an elected Senate.

The Conservatives will no doubt brush off much of the ensuing outrage as just more of the usual white noise. And to some extent, they may be right. Certainly, it's unlikely that these appointments will be top of mind for most Canadians four years from now, when we next go to the polls. (There's a reason why governments get this sort of thing out of the way quickly.) And the Liberals - who by most accounts remain a big preoccupation of Mr. Harper's, despite their diminished status - will be poorly positioned to capitalize on any residual anger given their own history of patronage appointments.

But for the New Democrats, this is a dream issue - and not just because it distracts from their own post-election foibles. It will give Mr. Layton, who has argued that the Senate should be abolished altogether, an opportunity to continue positioning himself as the outsider standing up for ordinary Canadians against Ottawa's culture of entitlement - a message that will be key to any future success west of Ontario.

The Conservatives spent much of the recent campaign enjoying the NDP's surge, because it mostly came at the expense of the Liberals. But for all that Mr. Harper might relish the prospect of his only national opposition coming from a party firmly to the left of centre, he might enjoy it a little else if that party starts challenging him on what was once safe Conservative turf. A few more announcements like Wednesday's, and that might start to be a real concern.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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