February 12, 2004) OTTAWA
- Prime Minister Paul Martin introduced a new spin in dealing with the sponsorship scandal that has been dominating question period, water cooler conversations, cable news programming and talk radio programs across the country for three days running by trying to better explain his knowledge or lack thereof of the scandal.
The prime minister held a news conference early in the afternoon where he made it clear that the sponsorship program and political files for Quebec belonged more to former prime minister Jean Chretien's wing of the Liberal Party than his.
"In short, my advice was not routinely sought on issues related to Quebec," the PM said of his time in the Chretien cabinet.
"It is no secret that I did not have an easy relationship with those around the former prime minister"
He later said that he was certainly "not in the secrets of the gods" when it came to matters relating to Quebec.
The PM downplayed the influence he had in cabinet even though he was the senior minister for Quebec by noting that a string of other ministers who were loyal to Chretien -- Andre Ouelett, Marcel Masse, Alfonso Gagliano and Martin Cauchon -- were all political ministers for Quebec during the Chretien era - not him.
"I know as well that some can't understand how as a Quebec minister I could not have known about the conduct of this program. The fact is that very few Quebec ministers did."
But he would not go as far to say that Chretien was the architect of the now scandalous sponsorship program.
"I am absolutely not saying that," he said. "The prime minister is a man of great integrity."
He also stepped away from a story in today's National Post based on the comments of "a senior government official" who approached the paper to detail the PM's line of defence and predict the inquiry would pin the blame on Chretien and Gagliano.
"You have people who were deliberately running a program under what appears to be essentially criminal directives," the official told the Post. "They are certainly breaking administrative rules and in many cases, it appears they could be guilty of fraud."
Martin also stepped back from his suggestion in the House yesterday that a small group of public servants were responsible for an elaborate scheme to funnel $100 million in sponsorship money to Liberal-friendly communications firms in Quebec that often did little or no work and charged fees and commissions for simply transferring government cheques. Sometimes those fees were charged when the cheque was transferred from the federal government to Crown Corporations.
He said he made reference to the small group of public servants in the House yesterday in order to make a point that the entire federal public service should not be tainted by the scandal, but that his comments sounded out of context.
Today the prime minister said that there was another "small group" outside of the group he pointed to yesterday and that there "had to be political direction."
"There is a range of other people - a small group again - who were giving out the orders. And those people we don't know who they are."
The prime minister was forceful at times during the press conference. At one point he said that while it was no secret that public funds were being used to fight for unity across the country,
it was not well known that others were "stealing money."
"Anybody who knew about that and did nothing should resign immediately."
"As a member of cabinet I take personal responsibility for dealing with this matter. I am politically accountable for my actions," he said in one breath, before adding that "we rely on the fact that people will act with integrity and expect the oversight mechanisms will identify when people have not."
"I am sick and deeply, deeply troubled about what happened."
When asked if he was prepared to "clean house" at the Crown corporations implicated in the scandal, the PM said, "To quote another prime minister, you just watch me."
The PM also said that he is "absolutely prepared to testify" before the public accounts
committee about the sponsorship scandal and that the scandal will not have a bearing on his decision or timing for an election.
"We'll have the election at the appropriate time."
Check out these related
blames small group of people
says he did not sign ad cheques (Feb. 10)
links ad contracts to Grits
track of the scandal du jour
© PoliticsWatch 2004. All
rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of
PoliticsWatch content, including by framing, copying, linking or
similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written
consent of Public Interests Research and Communications Inc.
PoliticsWatch is registered trademark of PIRCINC.