Legend has it that Canada’s first Conservative prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was interrupted on the hustings by a leather-lunged heckler, shouting: “I don’t care what you say, John. My father was a Grit, my grandfather was a Grit and by golly, I’m a Grit, too.” To which Sir John responded: “I take it that if your father and grandfather were jackasses, you would be a jackass, too.”

Interim editor Paul Tuns is more polite than Sir John A., but no less eager to persuade hereditary Liberals to reconsider their allegiance to the Liberal Party. To this end, Tuns has written a fine book, Jean Chretien, a Legacy of Scandal.

Would anyone care to dispute the accuracy of this title? “If you recall the decade in which Jean Chretien held power, what comes to mind?” asks Tuns. “You would be hard-pressed to name any significant new policy initiatives or grand visions that animated the government’s actions.”

Granted, grand political visions are not necessarily a good thing. Pierre Trudeau was nothing, if not a visionary. His misguided visions led us to an abortion holocaust, an epidemic of divorce, the judicial subversion of democracy and a monumental national debt.

Brian Mulroney, for all his faults, promoted at least two significant new policy initiatives – the GST and NAFTA. Tuns points out that Chretien derided both of these achievements during the 1993 federal election campaign, as he paraded around the country, cynically promising both to replace the hated GST and renegotiate NAFTA.

The best that can be said for Chretien is that he failed to fulfil either of these major election commitments. The GST is still with us. It’s hard to believe that Chretien ever really intended to get rid of this tax, inasmuch as it’s a huge revenue generator for the national treasury.

Tuns explains that in abandoning the election commitment to renegotiate NAFTA, Chretien was motivated by his eagerness “to foster a close relationship with Bill Clinton, who had expressed no interest at all in a new agreement.” Meanwhile, the Liberals, and even the economically benighted New Democrats, have come to appreciate that Mulroney’s much-maligned NAFTA free-trade agreement has been a huge boon to the Canadian economy.

Perhaps Chretien’s boldest election promise was to do away with the petty scandals that plagued the Mulroney era. To this end, Chretien specifically promised to appoint an independent ethics commissioner with teeth who would monitor the cabinet and “report directly to Parliament.”

But of course, Chretien broke this election promise as well. He appointed Howard Wilson to serve as ethics commissioner and made him accountable, not to Parliament, but to the prime minister. In this way, Tuns points out, Chretien put Wilson in “the unenviable position of investigating and ruling upon apparent improprieties, while being answerable only to the prime minister. Indeed, Wilson’s job was dependent upon Chretien’s goodwill.”

The results were predictable. “As scandal after scandal broke,” writes Tuns, “Howard Wilson, the prime minister’s ethics counsellor, almost always ruled in favour of the Liberal party and its leader.” Shawinigate was no exception. In this instance, Wilson held that the prime minister had broken no rules or regulations in personally and persistently lobbying the head of the Business Development Bank for approval of a dubious, $615,000 loan to the owner of the Auberge Grand-Mere, although Chretien had an indirect financial interest in this hotel through his part ownership of an adjacent golf course.

Some of the scandals of the Chretien era, such as the failed billion-dollar long-gun registry, were mere policy blunders. The Human Resources Development Canada imbroglio was more sinisterly political. Tuns notes: “There are many facets of this scandal, including the discovery of $1 billion in reimbursements that had shoddy or non-existent paperwork or were improperly paid to non-qualifying recipients or dispersed to people with connections to the prime minister, cabinet members or the Liberal party.”

Despite this litany of scandal and a lack of achievement, Chretien managed to get his government re-elected, not just once, but twice. How is that? Part of the explanation is that during his tenure as prime minister, the Reform party and the Canadian Alliance split much of the opposition to his government with the Progressive Conservative party.

Meanwhile, one of the worst scandals of the Chretien era – Adscam – has come to light. How much longer, one wonders, will die-hard Liberals stand by their once-great party?

Tuns recalls that the HRDC and Shawinigate scandals were a matter of public record before the 2000 election. “By this time,” adds Tuns, “Chretien had demonstrated repeatedly his inability or utter lack of interest in holding his government accountable for its mistakes. In that sense, by the 2000 election, Canadians were complicit in the corruption and in aiding and abetting Chretien’s personal pursuit of power. Fool Canadians once, shame on the Chretien Liberals; fool Canadians twice, shame on them.”

Rory Leishman is a columnist with the London Free Press and a member of the editorial advisory board of The Interim.