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BC Politics

Bill Bennett: A Man Ahead of His Time

For good or ill, BC's 27th premier shaped this province as much as his father did.

Crawford Kilian 7 Dec

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

When prominent politicians die, we are expected to say nothing but good about them. For my generation of teachers and other public servants, that rule applied to Bill Bennett's death would reduce us to grim silence.

Time often gives us a new perspective on our old political friends and enemies. W.A.C. Bennett, Bill's father, seemed like a blowhard and mountebank in the 1960s, when he was beginning to wear out his welcome. The 50-year school wars began on his watch when he slowly and grudgingly built schools to handle the baby boomers, and appropriated teachers' pension funds to finance his megaprojects.

But the old guy understood B.C. very well, and created institutions that served us well for decades: BC Hydro, for example, and BC Ferries. (If you never got a chance to ride the ferries in the 1960s and '70s, you have no idea how pleasant and affordable they were.)

Wacky Bennett had prospered as a Kelowna hardware merchant, but he was no free-market fanatic. In his day, the public schools might be overcrowded, or even running on shifts. But if you didn't like them and put your kids in a private school, you could pay the whole shot for their education. Taxes were for serving taxpayers, period.

Like a mid-century Stephen Harper, Wacky had defected from the old provincial Conservatives to Social Credit -- a crank fringe group created to end the Depression. He shaped it to his own ends, making it a new free-enterprise coalition to replace the stagnant Liberal-Conservative government. With some astute politicking, he outflanked the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (ancestors of the New Democrats) and ruled B.C. for 20 years.

Through much of this time, his youngest son Bill Bennett was helping to mind the store -- stores, actually, part of a respectable business empire. And when the NDP's Dave Barrett finally ousted the old man, Bill soon stepped into the breach and was elected to the legislature.

As underestimated as Justin Trudeau

Bill turned out to be a man ahead of his time. Like Justin Trudeau, he was jeered by his opponents as "MiniWac," who wouldn't have been in office without his father's name. Like Trudeau, he would leave his critics in his dust when he beat Barrett in the provincial election of 1975.

He was also, by several years, ahead of the neoliberal transformation created in the late 1970s and early '80s by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In more ways than one, Bill Bennett was a regression to the mean: not as visionary as his father, and a lot nastier.

He did a lot to earn that reputation. He didn't repeal the NDP-created Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, but he jacked up insurance rates, and doubled BC Ferries fares. He engineered a major defection from the provincial Liberal caucus, including Pat McGeer -- who said that if people couldn't afford ICBC's new rates, they should stop driving.

In 1977 Bennett also passed the Independent School Act, which used taxpayers' dollars to subsidize private schools (now called "independent" schools) -- widely seen as a blatant bribe to those who'd vote for him anyway, and which is now fixed in stone.

Starve the starving

By the early 1980s, B.C.'s Liberals were a ghost party and the NDP wasn't much stronger. Runaway inflation and an American recession had spilled into Canada, and as a new school trustee in North Vancouver I was trying to find a deal with our teachers at a modest 15 per cent salary increase -- while also trying to deal with a 20 per cent interest rate on my own mortgage.

Again ahead of his time, Bill Bennett responded to the recession the way the European Union responded to the 2008 economic collapse: by cutting funds and services to the people who needed them the most. The 1982 restraint program, among other things, gutted school boards' revenue sources by making their commercial-industrial taxes part of the province's share of school funding. Ever since, boards have had power only to decide which programs to cut when Victoria imposes its will (and its budgets) on them.

Many of us recall the reaction to restraint: months of turmoil and protest. At a rally at the old Empire Stadium on a summer evening in 1983, thousands cheered as police and firefighters marched in to protest the cuts to their services. In homage to the Polish workers undercutting the Soviets, a solidarity movement arose to resist the cuts.

Bill Bennett's farewell speech to the BC legislature. Video by George Orr.

I was teaching in China later in 1983 when the Socreds' convention at the Hotel Vancouver was surrounded by some 60,000 protesters, one of the greatest demonstrations in B.C. history. The province teetered on the edge of a general strike. But when I got back in 1984, Bennett's Socreds still ruled and solidarity was collapsing. Bennett was calling teachers, and anyone who disagreed with him, "bad British Columbians." Only private enterprise, he asserted, created "real jobs."

He was also giving everyone "BRIC shares," through which good and bad British Columbians alike would enjoy the profits of megaprojects like the coal mines of Tumbler Ridge -- which would fuel Japan's factories right up until the Japanese economy slumped into a long recession. The shares themselves were worthless.

By the mid-1980s Bennett was deeply unpopular despite the success of Expo 86 and the hype surrounding the new SkyTrain system. He was also taking flak for enormous cost overruns on the Coquihalla Highway (repaid with years of tolls).

With an election looming, and armed with my first computer, I wrote a book, School Wars, which I naively thought would further enrage the public by exposing the harm Bennett had done to public education. It was great fun (my teaching colleague Stan Persky typeset it in those days before desktop publishing), and it sold a few copies.

Trapped in BC Place

But one day in 1986 I was at an education conference held in the very new BC Place Stadium. (Bennett's biographer Allen Garr used to describe it as "a marshmallow in bondage.") As I listened to David Suzuki earnestly addressing his audience, the media guy from the B.C. School Trustees Association murmured in my ear: "Bill Bennett has just resigned."

The word ran swiftly around BC Place, even in that pre-texting, pre-Twitter era. When the rally ended, thousands of educators and students trooped out. Trooping among them, I realized that BC Place itself was a brilliant metaphor for Bennett's rule. We didn't like it. It was ugly, expensive, grotesque and irrelevant, but we were stuck with it -- and stuck in it. We would follow the stairs and corridors he had ordained if we wanted to get out of it.

Out of power, Bennett left Social Credit to be fought over by Grace McCarthy and Bill Vander Zalm, with Vander Zalm eventually dragging the party into disgrace and defeat at the hands of the NDP's Mike Harcourt. Meanwhile, another teaching colleague, Gordon Wilson, built the moribund BC Liberals into a serious opposition that was then taken over by the old Socreds behind Gordon Campbell.

Bennett was convicted of insider trading in 1996, but otherwise enjoyed a long and honoured retirement. He wrote no memoirs and rarely gave interviews. His death after years of Alzheimer's was not one any of us would wish on our worst enemy, least of all those of us close to his age.

For good or ill, Bill Bennett shaped this province as much as his father did, or more, and we are still struggling to find a way out to something better.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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