A remorseful Paul Martin moved to buy time last night for his beleaguered government with a personal apology for the sponsorship scandal and a pledge to call an election within a month of the final report examining the matter.
Noting that he was minister of finance when the sponsorship program was administered, Mr. Martin told a national television audience he should have been more attentive, given public revelations about how the money was spent.
"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. That's unacceptable."
The Prime Minister followed up his apology by listing off the various measures he has taken to get to the bottom of the scandal -- including establishing the Gomery inquiry.
He also promised to pay back any money the Liberal Party has improperly received.
"As Prime Minister, I will never hesitate to describe what happened on the sponsorship file for what it was; an unjustifiable mess."
Mr. Martin then promised to call a vote within 30 days of Mr. Justice John Gomery's final report, due in December.
That would mean a vote 10 months from now, if Judge Gomery meets his self-imposed deadline -- but that did not push an aggressive Stephen Harper off his path of bringing down the government.
"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 Mr. Martin's.
The Conservative Leader called Mr. 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 Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, who said he would not wait for Mr. 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.
"A government that doesn't respect the will of the elected does not deserve to govern."
But Mr. Martin won a glimmer of hope from NDP Leader Jack Layton, who suggested he might throw support to the Liberals in exchange for the removal of a multibillion-dollar corporate tax cut from the government budget bill now making its way through the House of Commons.
"I say to Paul Martin, bring the budget to a vote, take out the surprise corporate tax cuts and invest that money in the things that people want and need," Mr. Layton said. "The NDP's in no rush to judge the scandal, but we are in a rush to get something done through getting a better budget passed to show that politics can be about you."
Mr. Layton's potential support for the Liberals would leave the Tories in league with the Bloc Québécois on a confidence motion, a partnership that some Conservatives are concerned about because of the appearance of working with separatists.
Should a no-confidence motion occur, it would almost certainly be won or lost on a razor-thin vote.
The Liberals currently have 131 members on their side of the House and, with the NDP, could count on 19 more, for a total of 150. The Tories and the BQ have 153 MPs between them. There are, however, three independent MPs, all of whom the Liberals would need to support them to get a tie in the House, which could then be broken in their favour by Speaker Peter Milliken, a Liberal.
One of the three independents, former Liberal David Kilgour, signalled yesterday that he would vote against his former seatmates, apparently giving Mr. Harper the final vote he needs to bring down the government. However, the process is also complicated by the fact that two Conservative MPs are ill and have had difficulty getting to Ottawa to vote.
In his speech, Mr. Martin gambled that his own credibility, which still remains relatively high despite the scandal, will be enough to persuade 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," Mr. 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."
Should he fail to forestall an election, Mr. Martin's offer would still lay the groundwork, allowing the Liberals to argue during the campaign that Mr. Harper is a political opportunist for going ahead.
Last night's tactic might also play havoc with Mr. Harper's plan next week to take the temperature of Canadian voters on the need for an election. Liberals will argue that Mr. Harper will need more than a week to gauge public opinion, given Mr. Martin's new pledge.
Mr. Martin will also head out on the road next week and is expected to do a series of broadcast interviews today to continue to make his case. Mr. Harper will also be on the road in Ontario.
At the same time, a former Liberal cabinet minister, Edward Lumley, has contacted some of former prime minister Jean Chrétien's inner circle, to ask him to issue a statement expressing regret over the sponsorship program.
Insiders said that Mr. Lumley had contacted close Chrétien associates like Power Corp. executive John Rae, his former campaign chair, and Eddie Goldenberg, his long-time senior aide.
Mr. Lumley wanted them to urge Mr. Chrétien to issue a statement saying that although he created the sponsorship program in good faith, he is sorry that it went wrong. It was unclear if Mr. Chrétien, who is out of the country on business, had received the messages.
Earlier in the day, the Liberals were hammered anew in a Question Period that Mr. Martin did not attend.
Rows of the government benches were empty -- 59 Liberal MPs were missing -- and those that were there slumped, appearing deflated as ministers fended off new attacks.
Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, commenting after the Prime Minister's speech, said Mr. Martin's bid to hold off an election was the "act of a desperate leader." The Premier said that Mr. Martin is trying to cling to power. "He's buying time, on the basis of being a masochist."
With reports from Campbell Clark, Gloria Galloway and Bill Curry