TORONTO – Prime Minister Paul Martin (search) apologized to the nation Thursday night for a corruption scandal that has shaken his Liberal Party (search), delivering a rare televised address aimed at rescuing his minority government.
Acknowledging the allegations of money laundering and kickbacks have created an "unjustifiable mess," the embattled leader pledged to call an election within a month after an investigation, expected to be completed by Dec. 15.
"Those who are in power are to be held responsible, and that includes me," Martin said of the charges, which have disgusted Canadians and prompted the opposition Conservative Party (search) to threaten a no-confidence vote that could take down the government.
"I was the minister of finance and knowing what I have learned in the past year, I am sorry that I was not more vigilant," said Martin, who held that post under then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien (search) when the allegations that first surfaced in 2002.
"Those who have violated the public trust will be identified and will pay the consequences," he added.
Unlike American presidents, who make annual State of the Union addresses or who take to the airwaves on important occasions, it was the first such address by a Canadian leader in a decade.
Martin called on the nation to wait until the investigation headed by Justice John Gomery is finished and give his government time to pass critical legislation on such issues as health care reform, gay marriage, improved border security 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."
It was Chretien's national unity program, designed to bring Quebecois back into the national fold, which is at the heart of the current crisis. The scandal 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 national unity in Quebec following the narrow defeat of a separatist referendum in the French-speaking province. The firms apparently did little work in return.
Martin has not been implicated 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 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 told reporters immediately after Martin's 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. "I liked to call them fake volunteers," he said.