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A prime minister on his knees is not a pretty sight

Was it almost a year-and-a-half ago that Paul Martin, newly chosen leader of the Liberal Party, a position he had pursued with such diligence for so long, was thought a cinch to win a crushing national majority?

Was that the same man last night, looking so much older, and on his political knees, who tried plaintively to forestall an early election his Liberal Party would probably lose?

What a fall from political grace. What dashed hopes. What panic. Hit with the sponsorship scandal, Mr. Martin dealt with it by cancelling the program, recalling former cabinet minister Alfonso Gagliano, putting new procedures in place, creating the Gomery inquiry,

and delivering a mad-as-hell

performance.

Mr. Martin, not having been much credited with any of these moves, has seen the Gomery inquiry turn into a nightmare from which there is no awakening, as a variety of hustlers, admen, political aides, and sleazy confidence artists peel back layers of the sponsorship scandal.

Some of the evidence is uncorroborated. Some has even been contradicted. Much is self-serving. Shadings and nuance in such circumstances, to say nothing of elemental fairness, do not apply. The result has been politically disastrous for the Liberals. More testimony is still to come.

The vast majority of Canadians have neither the time nor interest to follow every twist of the inquiry testimony. They only know that their money was misspent, shady characters enriched themselves and, quite likely, some public money wound up in the pockets either of the Liberal Party or of people who played on their connections to the party.

In Quebec, the Gomery inquiry has become a kind of daytime télé-roman, with every episode featuring a riveting cast of characters, each one reminding Quebeckers why the Liberal Party has become a byword for corruption in a province whose self-image is that politics was cleansed there long ago.

By asking for television time, Mr. Martin implicitly acknowledged his party's desperate circumstances. Hammered by blows from testimony before the Gomery inquiry, Liberal fortunes have sunk like a stone, and might sink further.

To this party saga of woe can be added Mr. Martin's own dispiriting future, should an early election bring defeat.

The narrative from triumphant leadership winner and, therefore, Prime Minister, to a minority government to defeat, can only end badly and sadly for him, and likely not too long after such a defeat.

Mr. Martin's appearance was a long-shot effort to buy time through a promise to await the final report of the Gomery inquiry, and then call an election within 30 days, that is in December or January. It was an offer immediately and predictably rejected by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, who are almost indecently eager for the earliest possible election.

The Prime Minister's speech was built, as so much is with the Martin government, on a reading of polls. They ostensibly show that Canadians would prefer not to have an election right away. The polls also appear to demonstrate that Canadians want the Gomery inquiry's final report before electoral judgment. They also, however, show an electorate in a decidedly unforgiving mood.

Mr. Martin made personal references: to his father, a long-time Liberal cabinet minister, and to his own respect for political life. This gave the speech slight overtones of the kind of televised appeal Richard Nixon gave in 1952 -- the one about his dog and his wife's cloth coat -- to save his vice-presidential spot on the Republican ticket.

The risk inherent in this kind of televised speech was immediately clear: The opposition leaders got a chance to reply. One by one, they pounded the Prime Minister's reasoning. They each made the telling point that the sponsorship crisis wasn't a Canadian crisis, but a Liberal one. It's hard to argue with them.

Mr. Harper was particularly effective -- vigorous, implacable, and repeating the word "corruption" so often that it appears to have been hard-wired into every second sentence. If he is not careful, when asked what he wants in his coffee, Mr. Harper might reply, "corruption."

Mr. Harper says his caucus and party will consult Canadians next week, when the Commons does not sit, before deciding how to proceed. They have already decided: to the polls sooner rather than later, as Mr. Martin surely must have known.

jsimpson@globeandmail.ca

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