A "mad as hell" Prime Minister Paul Martin vowed once again Sunday to get to the bottom of the sponsorship scandal that saw millions in public funds flow to Liberal-friendly advertising agencies in Quebec.
But Mr. Martin, in an interview on CTV Question Period, absolved predecessor Jean Chrétien of blame, saying he doesn't think Mr. Chrétien played any personal role in the affair.
He also brushed off suggestions the scandal will undermine Liberal efforts to win a fourth straight mandate, expressing confidence the party can deal with its problems and win the next general election.
Mr. Martin and his government have been under fire - and their popularity plunging in opinion polls - since Auditor-General Sheila Fraser reported that up to $100-million of a total $250-million in federal sponsorship funding went to firms that apparently did little to advance the objective of promoting Canadian unity.'
"I am mad as hell that some people did this," said Mr. Martin. "This isn't a question of the Liberals' election. Liberals are mad.
"I am mad that there are some people who clearly perverted what should have been a government program that should have done a lot of good. I am very mad that some people may have enriched themselves, and I am very determined to get to the bottom of this and punish those who were involved."
Speaking later to reporters in St. John's, Nfld., Mr. Martin insisted he had no idea of how widespread the problem was during the years he served in Mr. Chrétien's cabinet as finance minister.
Asked if he knew any of the people who worked for the ad firms in question, Mr. Martin acknowledged contact with at least one - during his first, unsuccessful run for the Liberal leadership in 1990.
"He was involved in my leadership campaign but left really before the campaign got under way," the Prime Minister recalled. "There was some tension."
Mr. Martin did not name the man, but he appeared to be referring to Claude Boulay, president of Montreal-based Groupe Everest, who has previously been identified as having ties to the 1990 campaign.
The Prime Minister said he may have met some of the other private-sector executives caught up in the affair, but he indicated any such contact would have been casual.
"It's conceivable that I've met the others. I don't know them. I've met a lot of people when I'm obviously in Montreal, but I don't know them."
One of Mr. Martin's tactics in the wake of Ms. Fraser's report has been to distance himself from Mr. Chrétien, saying the former prime minister seldom sought his counsel on Quebec political affairs.
A Martin aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, has even been quoted as suggesting the Mr. Chrétien government knowingly covered up evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
Mr. Martin was more charitable Sunday.
"The former prime minister, Mr. Chrétien, is a man of unquestioned integrity, and I do not believe that he was involved in this," Mr. Martin said on CTV.
Some Chrétien loyalists have argued that Mr. Martin is making a mistake and sowing division within the party by trying to shift the blame to the previous administration.
The Prime Minister, who has called a public inquiry and has said he will also co-operate with a Commons committee that is looking into the affair, dismissed talk of civil war within the governing party.
He insisted that "Liberals across the country" want to resolve the issue and to find out who was responsible for creating the mess.
"They want to have an inquiry that basically lets the consequences fall where they may. And that's what we're going to do. There are no holds barred in this, every single door is going to be open, we're going to find out what happened and we're going to deal with the people who are responsible."
There has been speculation the scandal may force Mr. Martin to put off the election he had been expected to call as early as April.
He hedged when queried Sunday, repeating past assurances that he will call a vote "when it's appropriate."
Mr. Martin was adamant, however, that the government can recover from its troubles and persuade voters to shift their attention to its policy agenda of health care, education and other issues.
"If we go into an election making it very clear that we're dealing with this mess, if we go into an election basically saying to Canadians that we are going to improve the quality of their lives, we are going to build a stronger country, we'll win the election."