PHOTOS: Former British Columbia Social Credit Party Premier Bill Bennett on the steps of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria. Below: Another shot of Mr. Bennett, who died on Dec. 3, looking a little shaggy; NDP Premier Dave Barrett; W.A.C. Bennett, B.C.’s Social Credit League premier before Mr. Barrett’s short and turbulent tenure. Some things change, a lot of things don’t.
After an intentionally news-free week on a Sinaloan beach, I returned to Alberta late Friday to discover a familiar personage from my youth on Vancouver Island, former British Columbia Social Credit Premier Bill Bennett, had died.
Mr. Bennett, who was premier of B.C. from Dec. 22, 1975, to Aug. 6, 1986, died on Dec. 3, but the news appears not to have been made public until a few days later. He was 83 and suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
Like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, journalistic obituaries noted, he was one of the very few Canadian politicians to have succeeded to the same high political office held by his father – which suggests either that political talent is bred in the bone as much as a tendency toward athleticism or red hair, or that the children of the powerful are born on third with an option to walk to home. Maybe a bit of both. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley too is the daughter of a successful politician and for a spell had the same job in the Legislature as her father.
As an aside, Mr. Bennett was a distant cousin of R. B. Bennett, Canada’s Depression-era prime minister.
Regardless of his family connections, there can be no doubt about Mr. Bennett’s genuine political skills, demonstrated by his swift and successful consolidation of a right-wing coalition around his father W. A. C. Bennett’s battered Social Credit League after the humiliation of the elder Bennett’s government by Dave Barrett’s New Democrats in September 1972.
When W. A. C. Bennett resigned his South Okanagan seat after the 1972 election debacle, Bill Bennett was elected in a by-election in September 1973. He didn’t live in his father’s shadow for long.
Within a month, he won the party leadership on the first ballot. Among his first acts was to change the name to the Social Credit Party. Soon after he replaced the populism characteristic of his father’s leadership with a technocratic coalition of business types, Conservatives, right-leaning Liberals and social conservatives of a sort with which Canadians have since become all too familiar.
When Premier Barrett foolishly called an election needlessly early in 1975, Mr. Bennett put a premature end to the NDP government and set about establishing one of the first politically successful neoliberal regimes in Canada.
We can question the wisdom and even the decency of some of the Social Credit coalition’s economic policies yet still admire the single-minded determination with which Mr. Bennett pursued and implemented them.
It was exemplary, all the more so because the public side of politics did not seem to come easily to Mr. Bennett, who lacked the oleaginous charm of his old man.
During the younger Bennett’s premiership, there were attacks on teachers, noisy fights with public employees, anti-union legislation, deep cuts to public services and the institutionalization of unending economic austerity that over the years has become the principal hallmark of the political right in Canada.
There was a bizarre scheme to encourage us all to become share owners by giving away five shares in a company whose principal assets were the remnants of several Crown resources corporations being unloaded by the government. Soon enough they were worthless. Somewhere around here in my tickle trunk of memories I still have my five British Columbia Resources Investment Corporation shares, which have now long outlasted the company!
To Bill Bennett’s credit, unlike the quasi-theological market fundamentalism of today’s generation of neoliberal leaders, he also recognized there was a role for government. As the Globe and Mail noted in its obituary, he saw some things of lasting value built, including such “tangible accomplishments” as Vancouver’s SkyTrain light-rail system, the city’s B.C. Place Stadium and the Coquihalla Highway connecting the Lower Mainland to the B.C. Interior, albeit done using a well-connected non-union contractor.
Victoria was more like a small town then than it is now, and Premier Bennett knew most of his loudmouth opponents, the author of this blog included, by name. For the same reason, I guess, it was no secret that on occasion he enjoyed a strong drink. I still appreciate his genuinely sympathetic greeting when, ashen faced and shaking as was I, we two sons of teetotaling fathers found ourselves side by side in the hangover-remedy section of the pharmacy nearest the Legislature.
It was a considerably kinder gesture than that typical of the old premier, to whom it was my duty as a teenaged bicycle delivery boy in the service of a local pharmacy to ensure his bottle of stomach remedy was delivered promptly every week.
The elder Mr. Bennett counted out his change with care and, if he was feeling really generous, tipped me a dime with a smug smirk. I can’t recall for sure, but some of those dimes may have been bent a little. In fairness, that was a very long time ago, and the old hardware merchant from Kelowna would have reckoned a dime was worth a heck of a lot, and, what’s more, that 10 of them added up to a dollar.
As noted, Bill Bennett was not particularly empathetic by nature – coldly remarking of death threats received by his NDP predecessor that they were Mr. Barrett’s own fault because of the “radical” nature of his government.
This may sound familiar to those of us in Alberta now. Mr. Barrett’s government may not have been as cautiously conservative as Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s is today – notwithstanding the hysterical screeches about Bill 6, the Alberta government’s farm safety legislation passed on Thursday – but it was no hotbed of radicals in the great scheme of things either.
Mr. Barrett had to go around for a spell in the company of an RCMP bodyguard, a troubling novelty in those days, though not so much for Ms. Notley today, when the hatred of Western Canada’s most threatening right-wing kooks can be amplified, anonymized, and even institutionalized by social media.
Well, I find it very hard to imagine Mr. Bennett encouraging or even tolerating behaviour like that, unlike some of the leaders of the political right nowadays in Canada and the United States.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.