Bill Bennett achieved the rare feat in Canadian politics of winning the same high office his father held. As W.A.C. Bennett was B.C. premier so, too, was Bill. His accomplishments in office, however, were truly his own and continue to be energetically debated in the province he governed from 1975 until 1986.
Mr. Bennett died Dec. 3 at 83, following a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. When B.C. Premier Christy Clark met the media to pay tribute to the province's 27th premier, she did so on False Creek in the heart of Vancouver with the Science World centre as a backdrop – one piece of a legacy that included the creation of the SkyTrain light-rail system, whose trains whirred along nearby as a soundtrack to Ms. Clark's remarks.
Ms. Clark called the former Social Credit premier a "builder" whose tangible accomplishments also included BC Place Stadium, the Coquihalla Highway connecting the Lower Mainland to the B.C. Interior, Canada Place and preliminary work on the $8-billion Site C hydroelectric dam project in northeastern B.C., which Ms. Clark's government has since committed to building. She also cited the 165-day Expo 86 world's fair that brought global attention to the province.
But the other notable part of Mr. Bennett's record was the turmoil around a restraint program enacted in 1983, a tidal wave of protest prompted by a series of 26 bills tabled in one day that, among other things, adjusted bargaining practices for public-sector workers, eliminated the province's human-rights commission, indefinitely extended wage controls and otherwise cut spending. His efforts fired up a coalition of unions and community groups, leading to labour disruptions and marches by tens of thousands of protesters in Vancouver and at the legislature in Victoria.
With a general strike in sight, Mr. Bennett met with labour leader Jack Munro at the Bennett home in Kelowna, where they forged an agreement that headed off that possibility.
Ms. Clark, current head of the B.C. Liberals, came to the defence of the former Social Credit leader. "When people look at that period, there was a lot of fighting going on, but you don't lead by doing the easy things. You lead by doing the hard things," she said. "Canada was in a terrible recession. Taxpayers had no more money to spend. Bill Bennett came along and said, 'We're going to make sure government is a size you can afford.'"
Bob Plecas, a senior official and deputy minister in Mr. Bennett's governments, said the premier had no regrets about it all. "He wasn't that kind of guy," Mr. Plecas said. "When he decided, he never had doubts. He was very deliberate and serious about his decision-making."
Journalist Allen Garr said Mr. Bennett's handling of the restraint showdown demonstrated a notable reality about the man, which was highlighted in the title of Mr. Garr's book, Tough Guy - Bill Bennett and the Taking of British Columbia.
"He is unwavering, which is what made him tough. He stared down the largest organized labour disruption in the bloody history of the province. I don't think he budged a bit. And I think he was unwavering in what he wanted to do in government," Mr. Garr said this week.
On the other hand, he respected those who stood up to him, recalled former Bennett insider Peter Brown. He remembers accompanying business magnate Jimmy Pattison into a "heated meeting" with Mr. Bennett to deliver the news that Expo 86, which Mr. Pattison was organizing, was going to cost a lot more than expected. In the end, Mr. Brown said, the case was made. "[Mr. Bennett] turned to us and looked us in the eye and said, 'OK, you guys. You've got it. Don't embarrass your province,'" Mr. Brown said with a laugh.
"There were no shades of grey with Bill. He did what was intellectually and morally right and what he believed in."
Mr. Bennett left a legacy that has been of assistance to B.C. premiers since, according to one of Mr. Bennett's successors in the premier's office. "There's not a premier that followed Bill Bennett that didn't stand on the platform he built – not a one," said Gordon Campbell, B.C. Liberal premier from 2001 until 2011 and currently Canada's High Commissioner to Great Britain.
"Because of the work that Bill Bennett did, there were opportunities presented to each of the premiers that followed him, and each premier decided how they would take advantage of it or what they would learn from it."
He cited Mr. Bennett's management of the B.C. public service, the economy, infrastructure, and British Columbia's reputation in Canada and the international community.
Mr. Campbell was executive assistant to then-Vancouver mayor Art Phillips in 1976 when he first met Mr. Bennett, who had been elected as premier less than a year earlier. Mr. Campbell said Mr. Bennett was supportive of cities and is one of the "unsung heroes" in creating the Vancouver of the present day. "He was thoughtful. He was tough-minded. He was clear in his objectives. He listened and learned before he made decisions," Mr. Campbell said.
William Richards (Bill) Bennett, the son of W.A.C. and May (née Richards) Bennett, was born on April 14, 1932, in Kelowna. The youngest of the three Bennett children, he finished high school then went into business with his brother, Russell, initially managing hardware, furniture and appliance stores in the Okanagan and then working in real estate.
After the 1972 defeat of the elder Bennett, who had served as premier for 20 years, Bill Bennett decided to follow his father into politics. Mr. Brown said he was persuaded "somewhat reluctantly," as he was the only person who could save his father's party. "He was passionate that the NDP was bad for the province," Mr. Brown recalled.
Still, it was a tough decision. "You've got a guy who has got a comfortable life, living in Kelowna, very successful family in real estate and the hardware business. To disrupt all that and try [to] resurrect a party? If you didn't have reservations you'd be a fool." Mr. Brown said.
But Mr. Bennett plunged in, and created the centre-right coalition that has largely governed British Columbia since, whether under the Social Credit or B.C. Liberal banner, Mr. Brown said.
Asked about his entry into politics after his father's departure, Mr. Bennett once told The Globe and Mail, "there was room for one of us from the family at a time."
In the same interview, W.A.C. Bennett observed, "I've never given Bill advice and he's never asked for it. He's never needed it. He's been on his own since he was 17."
First Bill Bennett won the Okanagan South seat his father had held. Backed by his father, he then won the leadership of the Social Credit party on the first ballot. Then he rebuilt the party and led it to power in 1975, defeating David Barrett, who had beaten the elder Mr. Bennett.
Veteran political scientist Norman Ruff remembers meeting Mr. Bennett the night before the leadership vote. Mr, Ruff, now a professor emeritus with the University of Victoria, said he had a sense that "something historic" was going to take place.
"He was a new-style politician, a technocrat, and one of his strengths – it sounds like a backhanded compliment – was he knew his limitations," Mr. Ruff recalled. "He was aware he had a lot to learn as a politician. He didn't have that can-do-anything air to him that is the failing of many politicians."
Mr. Bennett was tested in the legislature, dismissed as a daddy's boy. However, he went on to rally his party to win power in 1975.
Mr. Campbell said he was in touch with Mr. Bennett after his departure from politics, but Mr. Bennett was emphatic about staying out of politics. "He went back to private life and he meant private by that," Mr. Campbell said.
Mr. Bennett was back in the spotlight years later, however, over allegations of insider trading. In 1996, the B.C. Securities Commission found him and his brother, Russell, guilty of insider trading during Oregon-based Louisana Pacific's unsuccessful attempt to take over Doman Industries. The commission banned the Bennetts from trading in securities or being directors or officers of public companies for a decade. They were acquitted of criminal charges in the case in 1989.
In a death notice, Mr. Bennett's family said he was "competitive in all aspects of his life, whether in business, politics, or the game he loved most, tennis."
Mr. Bennett, who was invested in the Order of B.C. in 2007, leaves his wife of 60 years, Audrey; brother, Russell; four sons; eight grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. A celebration of his life is to be held in Kelowna next year.
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