A remorseful Prime Minister Paul Martin moved last week to buy time for his beleaguered government with a personal apology for the sponsorship scandal and a pledge to call parliamentary elections within a month of the final report examining the matter.
In an extraordinary speech to a national television audience Thursday night, Martin noted that he was minister of finance when the sponsorship program was administered and that he should have been more attentive, given public revelations about how the money was spent.
Canada's prime ministers rarely take to the airwaves to address the nation; this was the first such speech in a decade.
"Knowing what I've learned this past year, I am sorry that we weren't more vigilant -- that I wasn't more vigilant," he said in his clearest acknowledgment to date of personal responsibility on the issue.
"Public money was misdirected and misused," he said. "That's unacceptable." The prime minister followed up his apology by listing the various measures he has taken to get to the bottom of the scandal -- including establishing the Gomery inquiry into the matter.
The scandal grew out of an ad campaign to win the hearts and minds of the people of Quebec after talks of secession in the 1990s.
The Gomery inquiry has produced testimony that the campaign amounted to a slush fund including kickbacks, payoffs and payroll padding that consumed more than a third of the $162 million (U.S.) federal program.
"As prime minister, I will never hesitate to describe what happened on the sponsorship file for what it was: an unjustifiable mess," Martin said. He then promised to call a vote within 30 days of Justice John Gomery's final report, due in December.
That did not push opposition leader Stephen Harper off his path of bringing down the government by forcing a vote of no-confidence.
"Our party will make those decisions in our own way and in our own time, as we've done all along, and we will do so with your guidance," he said in his address to Canadians, minutes after Martin's.
The Conservative leader called Martin's remarks a "sad spectacle" and said he looks forward to soon sharing with Canadians his party's ideas for government. "The Conservative Party wants to give this country direction."
He was joined in his scathing review by Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, who said he would not wait for Martin's proposed election timeline.
"This government does not have the moral authority to govern between now and then and to deal with important issues such as the budget, the fiscal imbalance," he said.
Any no-confidence motion would almost certainly be won or lost on a razor-thin vote.
The Liberals currently have 131 members. The 19 seats held by their presumed allies in the NDP would give them a total of 150 votes. The Tories and the BQ have 153 MPs between them. If all three independent MPs support the Liberals, a tie would then be broken in their favor by Speaker Peter Milliken, a Liberal.
In his speech, Martin gambled that his own credibility, which still remains relatively high despite the scandal, will be enough to convince Canadians -- and by extension the opposition -- that an election should be delayed.
"I am prepared to face Canadians and have them judge my response to this serious test of leadership," Martin said. "But I believe that before there is an election, you are entitled to answers -- to the answers that Judge Gomery is working toward."
Martin will head out on the road this week to continue to make his case.