Embattled Prime Minister Paul Martin made a rare, nationally televised address on Thursday to apologize for a corruption scandal within his Liberal Party, calling it an "unjustifiable mess."
Martin pledged to call an election within 30 days of an inquiry report on the scandal which has disgusted Canadians and provoked the opposition Conservative Party to threaten a no-confidence vote that could take down the government any day, triggering new elections.
"Those who are in power are to be held responsible, and that includes me," Martin said. "I'm sorry that I was not more vigilant. Those who have violated the public trust will be identified and will pay the consequences."
Unlike US presidents, who make annual State of the Union addresses or commandeer the airwaves for important occasions, it was the first such address by a Canadian leader in a decade and was aired coast-to-coast by all six of Canada's English and French television networks.
Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien did so on the eve of the failed 1995 referendum, pleading with voters in the French-speaking province of Quebec to turn down a proposal to become a sovereign state.
It was Chretien's national unity program, designed to bring Quebecois back into the national fold, that is at the heart of the current crisis that appears likely to topple Martin's minority Liberal government.
Justice John Gomery is overseeing an ongoing federal inquiry in Montreal concerning allegations of kickbacks and money laundering by Liberals during Chretien's leadership. Gomery is expected to give his report by Dec. 15.
Martin appealed to the two-thirds of Canadians who have told pollsters they don't want elections now to give his government time to pass critical legislation on such issues as health care and environmental reform, gay marriage, a national child-care program and the federal budget.
"Let Judge Gomery do his work," Martin said in taped speeches in English and French. "If so much as a dollar is found to have made its way into the Liberal Party for ill-gotten gains, it will be repaid to the people of Canada. I want no part of that money."
The scandal outraged the public when it was uncovered in 2002 and contributed to the Liberal Party's loss of its majority in Parliament after federal elections last June. An auditor general's report found millions of dollars in a national unity fund went to Liberal-friendly advertising firms to promote federalism in Quebec following the narrow defeat of a separatist referendum in the French-speaking province.
Martin has not been implicated in the scandal and is quick to point out that his first piece of business in office was to cancel the program, file lawsuits against 19 of the involved firms, and demand the inquiry.
Martin's opponents called his address a desperate, last-ditch attempt to remain in power, and demanded equal air time.
"We've all just witnessed a sad spectacle, a prime minister so burdened with corruption in his own party that he's unable to do his job and lead the country," Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper said, following the address. "A party leader playing for time, begging for another chance."
As each day passes, the crisis seems to get worse and front pages of the dailies run bold headlines with ugly new details.
The Globe and Mail on Thursday had an interview with Benoit Corbeil, a high-ranking Liberal organizer who told the national newspaper he received tens of thousands of dollars in cash from one of the advertising firms and funneled the money back into the hands of "fake volunteers" working on the Liberal campaign. Such laundering is a violation of federal electoral law.
Corbeil said most recipients of the cash were Liberal supporters who took unpaid leaves from their positions in ministries to work on the general election in 2000.
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