Bill Bennett, who led British Columbia as premier for 11 years, passed away on December 3 at his home in Kelowna.
Bennett, who had been in ill-health for several years with Alzheimer’s disease, was B.C.’s third longest-serving premier, leading from 1975 to 1986.
Bennett led the Social Credit to three consecutive majority governments after taking over the party’s leadership from his legendary father, W.A.C. Bennett, in 1973.
Among his accomplishments as premier were the building of the Coquihalla Highway and overseeing the drive to Expo 86 in Vancouver, including the building of the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre and SkyTrain.
“He made tough calls, and he wasn’t afraid to make the tough calls,” said Jimmy Pattison.
At the same time, his focus on financial restraint resulted in many government cutbacks and conflicts with unions, culminating in the famous Solidarity protests of 1983 that almost led to a general strike.
“Somebody’s got to have the ability to stand up and ‘say this what we’re going to do. And if you don’t like it, kick me out,’” he said in his last interview with Global News in 2008.
But they never did. Bennett retired in 1986, three years into his third term, and today is generally lauded by political observers of all stripes.
“I think Bill Bennett isn’t given the credit he deserves,” said former NDP Premier Mike Harcourt.
“Going ahead with the trade and conference centre, Expo, the rapid transit system. Those were hugely important to do.”
Former civil servant Bob Plecas, who wrote a biography of Bennett last decade, argues the former premier was the most important leader of British Columbia’s modern age.
“He brought to us such incredible breadth of programs and issues and ideas, I don’t think anybody in the modern age…has matched that,” he said.
“I think today we’ve lost a great British Columbian.”
WATCH: Keith Baldrey assesses Bennett’s impact on British Columbia
Continuing a dynasty
William Richards Bennett was born August 18, 1932, in Kelowna to William Andrew Cecil (W.A.C). and May Bennett.
W.A.C. ran for office for the first time when Bill was five. By the time he was 20, W.A.C. had become premier. While Bill tended to the family business, the elder Bennett led British Columbia for an unprecedented 20 years, from 1952 to 1972, ushering British Columbia into the modern age with a slew of infrastructure projects throughout the province.
“Going into public life is a commitment and a responsibility that was pressed on me early in my life,” said Bill.
But when his father finally lost a provincial election, to the NDP and Dave Barrett in 1972, it was unknown what the future of the Social Credit party would hold.
Though unknown, Bill stepped up to replace his father. He captured his father’s seat with 39 per cent of the vote in a 1972 byelection. A month later, he declared for the Social Credit leadership and won it handily when his most dangerous potential opponent – Phil Gaglardi, a former highways and welfare minister – decided not to run.
“I never suggested to him that he should run for leader, no way. In no way will I name anybody. They’ll stand on their own merits,” said Bennett the elder in his retirement.
Under the NDP and Barrett, the provincial government moved ahead aggressively on many promises, passing a whopping 367 bills during their three years in office.
But they also ran large deficits during a downturn in the world economy and alarmed British Columbia’s business community.
In 1975, Bennett and the Social Credit Party roared back to power, winning 35 of 55 seats in the legislature. Much like his father, he promised a populist, free-enterprise government, supporting infrastructure, business, and restrained government spending.
“I didn’t run to win, I ran to serve and to do what was right for the people of this province,” he said on election night.
He would stay true to his convictions for the next 11 years in power, to the delight of his supports – and considerable angst of his detractors.
WATCH: Politicians and reporters remember Bill Bennett
Archive: One-on-one with Bill Bennett
Archive: One-on-one with Bill Bennett
Bill Bennett Obit: Daphne Bramham
Bill Bennett Obit: Art Kube
Bill Bennett Obit: Christy Clark
Bill Bennett Obit: Bob Plecas
A legacy of projects
Much like his father, Bennett focused on creating economic projects throughout the province.
“He cared Kelowna, he cared about Vancouver, but he cared about the entire province,” said Jimmy Pattison, the head organizer for Expo 86.
After toppling the Barrett administration, the new premier vowed to “get B.C.’s economy moving again” with measures such as a 40 per cent increase in provincial sales tax, 140 per cent increase in premiums under the government’s Autoplan insurance program and 100 per cent increase in B.C. ferry fares.
He approved the Revelstoke Dam, the second largest generating station for BC Hydro, and oversaw the push to develop the coal industry, funding construction of a rail line from the Peace River to Prince Rupert.
But it was projects closer to Vancouver that drew the most attention. The Coquihalla Highway was fast-tracked by Bennett, who was determined to see a modern, 4-lane highway link the Lower Mainland to the Interior.
And in Vancouver, the decision to hold Expo 86 resulted in a number of projects – the Convention Centre, BC Place, Skytrain, and the conversion of industrial land around False Creek to residential lands – that propelled Vancouver into a metropolis.
“He would have breakfast meetings with people in Vancouver, and he would have meetings with business people month in and month out, trying to get to know people,” said Pattison, recounting how the premier worked hand in hand with the business leaders of the day.
“People didn’t know him, they all knew his father. He was certainly anxious to tell his story, and he wanted Downtown Vancouver to know what was on his mind, and what he was going to do.”
He also was the first Premier to focus on opening up British Columbia’s links with Asia.
“He’s left a legacy that sees B.C. play a role in the Pacific Rim that we’re doing now more and more. He’s the ones that got the offices open, he’s the one that did the first trips,” said Plecas.
And through it, he continued to win, defeating the NDP and Barrett in 1979 and 1983 for three straight majority governments – a record only exceeded by his father.
“He beat us in 1975, 1979 and 1983,” said former NDP MLA Moe Sihota.
“We always underestimated his ability to unite the right.”
Bill Bennett legacy (1): Skytrain, BC Place, Expo 86, False Creek lands, Northeast Coal, Alex Fraser Bridge, Coquihalla Hwy #bcpoli
— Keith Baldrey (@keithbaldrey) December 4, 2015
Bill Bennett legacy (2) Rebuilt Social Credit dynasty; restraint program, won re-election twice, Revelstoke Dam, Tumbler Ridge #bcpoli
— Keith Baldrey (@keithbaldrey) December 4, 2015
Discord with organized labour
“The first element in reducing inflation and interest rates, and getting our people back on the job is to control government spending at all levels. The government will introduce at the next sitting of the legislature, a program limiting public sector spending in British Columbia.”
So said Bill Bennett shortly after being re-elected in 1983, and so began the biggest labour battle seen in modern British Columbia history.
The government introduced a “Restraint Budget”, which sharply cut funding to government programs and rolled back wages to public sector unions.
It prompted a wave of protests under the “Solidarity” banner, with some rallies swelling up to tens of thousands of people.
It almost culminated in a general strike – but that was averted when Jack Munro, President of the International Woodworkers of America, flew to Kelowna and hammered out a deal with Bennett.
“A general strike, that was being talked about, was to shut down this complete entire province until the government capitulated. And that don’t work in my opinion in this day and age,” said Munro afterwards.
WATCH: Remembering Jack Munro
To most, Bennett won the duel, and it further entrenched an adversarial relationship between labour and government that remains to this day.
“It was difficult time, and people gathered in numbers. He stuck to his principles, he stuck up for the little person, and he stayed there until he reached a settlement,” said Plecas.
Those on the other side remember it with less fond memories, even today.
“We were combatants in a very difficult period of time in our history. He represented certain interests, and I represented working class interests. In that particular time, there were no compromises, we were strongly on opposite times,” said Art Kube, President of the BC Federation of Labour during Solidarity.
“Bill Bennett did create a tremendous amount of division in this province, and unfortunately we’re still living with that legacy. ”
It epitomized why the premier had his detractors. His public persona was seen as stiff and reticent. And he was rarely willing to waver from his beliefs in what needed to be done.
“He didn’t seek publicity. He was a shy person, but he always aimed to do the right thing,” said Pattison.
“I don’t think he had a master plan. [It was more] ‘I’m going to get to where we’re sitting, over to the other side of this building, and if I can go through doors to do it, fine. If I have to walk through walls, fine. If I have to bash things down as I go, fine. The thing is, I’m going to get there,” said Rafe Mair in 1983, after he left Bennett’s cabinet to become a successful radio host.
“He was ruthless, but I never got the feeling that he was going to be unfair in his ruthlessness, in that he was going to be immoral, or anything like that. But I certainly got the impression that I wasn’t going to get in his way.”
WATCH: An interview between Bill Bennett and Jack Webster in 1979
Legacy and retirement
After Bennett retired in 1986, B.C. entered a period of political turmoil. Social Credit members chose Bill Vander Zalm as party leader and premier, and it would kick off a 13-year period in which three successive premiers had to resign because of ethical scandals, and the Social Credit party was replaced by the
BC Liberals as the preferred choice of right-wing, “free enterprise” voters.
For his part, Bennett stayed mostly quiet after politics, working his four sons and their commercial real estate company in Kelowna.
In 2005 Gordon Campbell, seen by many as the ideological successor to Bennett, renamed the Okanagan Lake Bridge the William R. Bennett Bridge in his honour.
In 2007 he was appointed to the Order of British Columbia, the province’s highest honour.
Last year, his family said he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, explaining why he had completely receded from public life.
“He was not in very good shape then,” said Plecas, remembering his final meeting with Bennett later that year.
“I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to remember the dynamic man he was, and the contribution he made as the man I knew him as. ”
In a statement, Premier Christy Clark called him “one of our greatest and most influential leaders.”
“As great as his accomplishments were, he took even more pride in his greatest legacy – his family. My thoughts and prayers are with them at this time.”
A celebration of life will be held in Kelowna early in 2016. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in Bill’s memory to the Alzheimer’s Society of British Columbia. Condolences may be sent to the family by visiting Springfield Funeral Home.
“He was also known for his quick wit and great sense of humour. He loved and cherished time with his family and close friends and will be greatly missed,” wrote his family in a statement released this afternoon.
Bennett is survived by his wife of 60 years, Audrey, and his brother Russell, four sons, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
WATCH: Bill Bennett spoke about his legacy in April 2008