When the ship and the iceberg are heading for the same place, it is a time for exceptional manoeuvring -- on the part of the ship. The iceberg is usually indifferent.
The laws of the sea and the laws of partisan politics are happily co-incident on this point. In any case, what Canadians watched on Thursday evening was Captain Martin attempting what he had no choice but to attempt: to halt the imminent collision of the party he leads with a second judgment from the voters in a single year. The question is whether a seven-minute television address was a manoeuvre sufficient to the crisis.
It was a fine talk. The Prime Minister is not primarily an orator, and even if he were, television uneasily accommodates an oratorical style. But the Prime Minister is -- in my judgment, anyway -- an appealing person who wears the attribute of normal decency. He is a man of strong affective appeal. There is about his personality something of the inoffensiveness and charm that comes close to the idealized Canadian type.
His speech played to this strength. He said he was sorry about the sponsorship mess, and though there is not a child of 7 who does not understand that part of that admission was wrung from him by the simple force of the scandal's storm, that is not to say that it was not also a genuine statement of regret and responsibility. It's worth noting, too, that "sorry" is a far bigger word that his predecessor has so far managed, or is ever likely to do, for the scandal whose paternity is far more Jean Chrétien's than it is Paul Martin's.
He spoke also in personal terms of his relation to politics and Parliament. He reminded Canadians of his father's career in politics. He attempted to ground his own outrage and injury over sponsorship's witless cronyism and misdirection of public moneys as an affront to the noble cause of public life he learned from a respected and cherished parent. I don't think that was, in any sense, a callous emotional calculation. This man's name is Paul Martin, not Bill Clinton.
And finally, at the centre of his talk, he offered a piece of logic: If Canadians are going to be forced into an election on the strength of Mr. Justice John Gomery's continuing inquiry, then surely Canadians deserve the report and the judgment of the man who is holding the inquiry, Judge Gomery. If Mr. Martin's
party and his government are going
to be judged on a scandal, let the judgment be both fair and thorough -- when all the facts are in, the testimony weighed, and the judge in charge has
delivered his verdicts.
I don't think, strictly speaking, that this position can be argued against. That's not to say it cannot be rebutted. Which is precisely what Stephen Harper, who immediately followed the Prime Minister, did. He flailed Mr. Martin, not on his logic, but on his practice. Remember, it was Mr. Martin who called the election last year, when sponsorship was already a hyperactive issue, and Judge Gomery had yet to begin his explosive hearings.
Last year, as Mr. Harper very tellingly pointed out, it was okay to have an election on this issue when the investigations had hardly begun. It will not do this year, after a hurricane of its revelations -- the shoddy work, the hyperinflated billings, the dank murk of deep cronyism, and the overall smug complacency of some of those who have appeared at the hearings -- to say that it is necessary to wait for the official determinations before Canadians pass a political judgment on the party whose corruption the inquiry represents.
Stephen Harper gave a fine performance on Thursday night as well. He is not an affective personality, but he is intelligent and focused. He is not (never has been) the raving ideologue his opponents attempt to paint him.
He pointed out, correctly I think (as did the speakers who followed, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe) that the moment was not one of national crisis but one of a crisis in the Liberal Party.
Mr. Harper argued, in effect, that Canadians know enough already. Still, in this line of argument he is exposed to an equivalent piece of self-contradiction, as was Mr. Martin. Last year, Mr. Harper was arguing that before Gomery any election was premature. Now, he doesn't feel the need to wait for Gomery to conclude.
Mr. Martin probably did not achieve his stated objective. The election will not be deferred. He may have secured a greater stock of credit than he has enjoyed to now for his efforts to face the facts of the scandal, and acknowledging his own and his party's real responsibility for it.
Mr. Harper logically and powerfully made the case that a government and a party so harried by its own mischiefs and misdemeanours has no compelling grounds to continue to exist.
The election is on.
Rex Murphy is a commentator with CBC-TV's The National and host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup.