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Will survival strategy work? Probably not

OTTAWA

Martin was grave, he was apologetic, and he was statesmanlike, although he also seemed weary. But who wouldn't be weary, if forced in front of the entire nation to beg?

Mr. Martin pleaded with us, and with the opposition parties, to allow his government to survive until next winter. He made that plea because Liberal insiders fear that, if an election is called this spring, they are likely to lose.

Voter anger over the revelations emanating from the inquiry into the sponsorship inquiry, coupled with voter fatigue with Liberal government ad infinitum, would likely combine to bring Stephen Harper's Conservatives to power.

But disaster, the Liberals feel, can still be averted. For a few more weeks, at least, Mr. Martin still has the tools of prime ministerial power at hand.

And so he exercised that power last night, by commandeering the airwaves for what was, in essence, free party advertising.

That advertisement had two goals -- to prevent the opposition from forcing a spring election and, if it cannot be prevented, to neutralize the damage to the Paul Martin brand from the Gomery inquiry.

The Prime Minister promised to call an election as soon as the commission's final report is completed because he is certain that report will not implicate him.

At the worst, he is likely to be accused of having suspected there was funny business going on over the awarding of sponsorship contracts in Quebec, and not confronting then-prime minister Jean Chrétien over it.

But most people may not comprehend the Prime Minister's lack of personal involvement in the scandal. Most people don't know that it was Mr. Martin who commissioned the inquiry in the first place. All they know is that newspaper headlines scream of dirty tricks, and radio commentators howl about Liberal corruption, and TV news clips show guilty-looking men in fancy suits being grilled by stern lawyers.

Mr. Martin's address aimed at bypassing that distorting filter, with a direct appeal to the public. (It will be interesting to know how many of the public watched, since the original scheduled time of 7:45 p.m. was changed to 7:02 at midday.) Since, as in a televised leadership debate, people tend to make up their mind about a prime ministerial address by reading or listening to the commentary on it, he is also hoping to blackmail the media into giving his side of the story equal time, giving his 'I had nothing to do with it, and will fix it' defence greater play.

So, will it work? Probably not.

Voters are not angry at Paul Martin over the sponsorship scandal. They are angry at the Liberals. Whatever conclusions Judge Gomery reaches, voters know today that the Liberals had such a self-righteous view of their mission to defend federalism in Quebec that they were, at the very least, casual with the law.

Some people are going to punish the Liberals for that. Nothing personal, Paul, they will say, but the Liberals have to pay for what they did, and you're a Liberal. Case closed.

That does not mean that defeat is certain. The Conservatives face large obstacles in the way of their taking power. First, they must persuade the NDP to support them in bringing down the Liberals if they are to assure the defeat of the government in the House.

The Conservatives must also tighten their increasingly ambiguous platform (which is beginning to look increasingly Liberal) and they must find a way to keep sponsorship revelations front and centre throughout a five-week campaign -- which shouldn't be too hard since testimony from the inquiry could coincide with at least part of the election. Most of all, they must combat Mr. Harper's unhappy ability to look and sound like a school teacher handing out a detention, although the Conservative Leader's youth and increasing confidence compared very favourably, last night, with the Prime Minister's sombre tones.

"I believe that Canadians deserve a full and frank accounting of all the facts," Mr. Martin maintained. "Fairness and due process require nothing less." An assertion that Stephen Harper described as "playing for time, begging for yet another chance." Which are voters more likely to believe?

The Liberal legacy hangs in the balance. An agenda that, by their own admission, has only just gotten under way, and the future of a prime minister who had such high hopes for his administration, could all be swept away in a matter of weeks.

No wonder Mr. Martin was ready to plead with us to give him more time, even if it means we will have to vote in a snow storm.

P.S. What does Paul Martin plan to do if Jean Chrétien is successful in his Federal Court challenge to have the Gomery inquiry quashed?

jibbitson@globeandmail.ca

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