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Last Updated: Friday, 22 April, 2005, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
Canada's PM fights to stay in job
By Lee Carter
BBC News, Toronto

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin has made an address aired by television and radio, appealing directly to the country in a controversial and some say desperate attempt to save his crumbling minority government.

Canadian PM Paul Martin
Mr Martin says he wants a chance to clear up the mess
The governing Liberals have been embroiled in a corruption scandal, involving millions of dollars of government money.

The money was paid to advertising companies in the primarily French-speaking province of Quebec, in the late 1990s. An auditor-general's report in 2004 found that little or no work was performed and that normal accounting practices were virtually non-existent.

A subsequent public inquiry has heard explosive testimony including allegations that the Liberal party received kickbacks from the same agencies.

The advertising money was supposed to promote national unity and federalism in a province that had narrowly voted against separating from the rest of the country.

In his nationally-televised broadcast, Mr Martin apologised to Canadians. Even though he has never been personally linked to the scandal, he took some responsibility as he was the finance minister at the time the alleged corruption took place.

He reminded Canadians that it was he who commissioned the independent public inquiry, headed by an impartial judge, as well as a criminal investigation.

He said the public inquiry was hearing conflicting testimony and that only the judge's final report had any hope of getting to the truth.

While he acknowledged the opposition had the right to call an election, he felt there should not be one until the public inquiry has had the chance to finish its work.

Public broadcast

Instead, he promised to call a general election within 30 days of the final report and recommendations, expected at the end of the year.

"As prime minister I will never hesitate to describe what happened... as an unjustifiable mess," he said.

The Canadian political landscape has become fragmented
"It's up to me to clean it up. That's my job. I am cleaning it up."

The opposition parties expressed outrage that Mr Martin had used the national airwaves to make his appeal.

Previous prime ministers have only requested air time during a time of national crisis, such as when Pierre Trudeau invoked an almost never-used war measures act to counter terrorism in Quebec in 1970.

Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper called Mr Martin's speech "a sad spectacle", characterising him as a party leader playing for time, begging for another chance.

"Mr Martin's speech tonight was not about this country," he said. "It was not about saving this country. It was about saving the Liberal Party.

"That's a question for the voters to decide."

The initial response from a TV studio audience in Vancouver was clearly divided. Some people agreed with Mr Martin that the public inquiry should be allowed to publish its findings before any election call. Others were concerned that parliament had already been paralysed by the uproar over the scandal.

The Conservatives still seem to be itching to bring down the government, but despite all the bravado and harsh words, taking Canadians to the polls immediately could be quite risky.

The country's political landscape has become fragmented. French-speaking Quebec, which represents a quarter of the electorate, seems set to vote en-masse for a regional separatist party the Bloc Quebecois.

And at the last election only a year ago, the Conservatives failed to make headway in the rest of Canada, possibly because of mistrust over some of its right-wing social policies.

If there is further vote-splitting, the third party, the leftish New Democrats, may be a direct beneficiary.

Popularity

Even if the Conservatives were to win a spring or summer election, it seems unlikely they could achieve anything other than a very slim minority.

Observing all this has been Dave Taylor, the parliamentary bureau chief for Canada's national radio network, the CBC.

He says the Liberals have been steadily losing popularity in the opinion polls "like a ball going down a flight of stairs".

He thinks, even with Mr Martin's speech, it is going to be very difficult for the government to recapture an agenda that's slipped out of its control.

"As the government has tried hard to differentiate itself from its predecessor, there's a brand issue. Paul Martin is the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, as was Jean Chretien, his predecessor.

"People see a brand and they see a leader, and they see them together. So unless he changes the name of the party or starts running around in different colours, it's hard to imagine how he can get away from this."

And judging by the tone of Mr Harper's immediate reaction, it appears as if the prime minister's appeal for a delayed election has, in any case, already been rejected.


SEE ALSO:
Profile: Paul Martin
21 Apr 05 |  Americas
Canada PM defends his leadership
11 Apr 05 |  Americas
Scandal anger mounts in Canada
10 Apr 05 |  Americas
Canada scandal testimony released
08 Apr 05 |  Americas
Canada PM quizzed over lost funds
10 Feb 05 |  Americas
Ottawa 'mishandled' public funds
11 Feb 04 |  Americas


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