The Remarkable Rise Of Smiling Cece Bennett
This B.C. hardware merchant always wanted to lead a political party. He got his chance when the Social Crediters scored their famous upset. Now, to everybody's astonishment, he's made himself the undisputed ringmaster of the province's four-riiig political circus
THE morning of August 2, 1952, William Andrew Cecil Bennett, British Columbia’s bumptious new Social Credit Premier, squared his shoulders like a sergeant-major, flashed his habitual smile, marshaled his ten cabinet ministers into a double file and triumphantly marched them from Victoria’s Empress Hotel up the long curving driveway to the Legislative Buildings. Thus, with unprecedented dramatics, Canada’s second Social Credit government officially took over Canada’s third largest province.
It was a typical Bennett performance and for once no one begrudged the Premier his moment of glory. He’d always wanted to lead a political party. This was the grand finale to a summer of circusstyle politics and, possibly, to ringmaster Bennett’s political career. No matter what developed when the legislature convened, Bennett-a rebel Conservative heading a minority Social Credit government—stood to lose.
His Social Crediters were in a curious position. Starting with no political platform, no experience and no seats in the legislature, they’d embarked on a hymn-singing Scripture-quoting campaign and elected nineteen MLAs—the greatest election upset in B. C. political history. But the CCF held eighteen seats and the Liberals and Conservatives ten. The combined opposition could defeat the governl ment whenever it wished.
Bennett faced this gloomy prospect without many visible means of support. His colleagues—ministers, Farmers, schoolteachers and a trolley-bus conductor
were eager but inexperienced. Only Bennett and the late Mrs. Tillie Rolston, a peppery grandmother and also an ex-Conservative, had been in
I government before. One or two Socred members hadn’t even been in the Legislative Buildings before.
Bennett’s followers respected his eleven years of legislative experience but distrusted his Conservative background. When asked to define Social Credit during a campaign speech, Bennett, who formally joined the movement only eight months before, had said evasively, “It’s the opposite to socialism.” Most of his followers had better
answers. Like all orthodox Socreds they want to take over Canada’s monetary system. Bennett was
obviously neglecting his doctrinary homework and it appeared that if his enemies didn’t oust him, his uneasy friends would.
But to everyone’s continuing amazement, Cece Bennett (also called “Wac” or “Wacky” from his initials) wriggled out of this dilemma like a political Houdini. Smiling but unyielding, he has since become the absolute ruler of legislature, cabinet and party. Thirty months ago he was on the verge of becoming a political nobody. Today Bennett is boss of B. C.
Always a first-class salesman—he owns five hardware stores in the Okanagan Valley—the Premier has sold his followers and the province on a highly Conservative brand of Social Credit. His government weathered a second election in 1953 and now holds twenty-seven of the forty-eight, provincial seats. He is still vague about Social Credit but. has so grown in political strength that if Social Crediters reached Ottawa in his political lifetime he could be a candidate for prime minister.
This remarkable change in Bennett’s political fortunes is no accident. It’s the logical outcome of a lifetime of study, labor and ambition: an object lesson in how to become a political strong man.
Bennett has also capitalized on his luck, of course. B. C. was ripe for a change when Social Credit came in. People were f ired of the bickering and charges of favoritism in the old Coalition Government. Bennett has maintained outward solidarity and has tried carefully to avoid wildly controversial legislation of the sort once feared from Social Credit.
This doesn’t mean that there’s compílete harmony in the cabinet or in the province. The Socreds inherited two knotty problems from the LiberalConservative regime—liquor and hospital insurance —and they’re still problems. A province-wide plebiscite in 1952 called for liquor by the glass. This was embarrassing for Bennett and many of his followers, who are non-drinkers, but the new
government appointed a three-man commission to investigate the matter. The commission made recommendations, an act was subsequently passed and B. C. has cocktail bars. Bennett squared this with Social Credit teetotalers by explaining that “this is a pieople’s government, carrying out the will of the people.”
But the act doesn’t carry out the will of the commission repiort. For example, the commission recommended that, liquor, beer and wine be served in restaurants. Under the act, licensed restaurants serve only beer and wine. The commission recommended that cozy public houses—a type of workman’s club with light, lunches, beer and music —repflace beer parlors, but this hasn’t happened.
The strangest feature of the act is its ruling on bar names. Drinking places can display no signs other than “Licensed Premises,” in letters not more than two inches high. Names like “tavern,” “saloon” or “The Horse’s Head” are banned, presumably because they’re considered a form of advertising.
Naturally, ludicrous incidents have occurred. The owner of the Poodle Dog restaurant in Victoria said when he apqdied for a liquor license the liquor board wanted him to take down his sign -a trademark for over half a century—-of a pjoodle dog “waiter” carrying a tray and two glasses. The barman in a Victoria hotel dressed his bottles in cardboard skirts for a few days because, he said, an
LCB inspector had ordered him to hide the labels.....
a form of advertising.
Bennett’s hospital insurance legislation has also drawn criticism. Under the Coalition, compulsory hospñtal insurance was always a problem. Premiums were rising; some pxjopfle couldn’t or wouldn’t pay and income wasn’t meeting the cost. Bennett abolished the premiums and raised the threej>ercent provincial sales tax to five p>ercent. The extra two percent goes for hospitalization and gives the government about eight million dollars more than the old premium system. Still, the heavy tax is frequently criticized in the Press and even Social Credit rank and filers, at their annual convention last October, presented a motion to remove it.
The Premier gently but firmly squelched the
motion and, in fact, dominated the entire conven-
tion. There was no doubt
Continued on page 58
Smiling Cece Bennett
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 25
as to who’s boss of B. C. Social Credit. But Bennett had established that fact on numerous other occasions, notably at the B. C. Social Credit League’s 1953 convention.
Theoretically the league is an educational body, devoted to spreading the Social Credit gospel and divorced from politics. Socreds prefer to call their political activities a “movement” and never refer to a “party.” But in practice the league is the party and at the 1953 convention there were signs that the league intended to give orders to Bennett and his MLAs.
One delegate proclaimed, “This is a grass-roots movement and we instruct the MLAs what to do.” National leader Solon Low urged resolutions that would lay down government policies. Then Bennett affably but firmly took charge. The government, he said, would follow the convention’s resolutions with “great interest” but they would be implemented only when “feasible and possible and the time is ripe.”
A few months later L. H. Shantz, member for North Okanagan, spoke up on the then-unsettled hospital insurance issue. He thought the people should decide it for themselves by plebiscite. This was not the government’s official view. Soon Shantz was relieved of his post of deputy speaker. Bennett said it was a routine shuffle to give others experience at the job but a North Okanagan Social Créditer remarked, “The Premier has at last taken action against a man who has been bucking him secretly at every turn.”
In the legislature no government members buck the Premier. From time
to time Bennett whispers advice or orders to his colleagues. Sometimes he rises to answer questions directed at them. It’s strictly a one-man show.
Although this undoubtedly irks some Social Crediters, most of them feel that without Bennett they wouldn’t be in government. His political skill holds them together in the assembly. He’s a quick-witted debater and there’s probably no shrewder tactician in the legislature.
Opposition members and px-ess-gallery reportei’s call Bennett an expert “kite flyer.” Kite flying is the tactic of sounding out the public on a controversial issue by letting a rumor leak into print. If public reaction is unfavorable it’s a simple matter to change plans, since the government hasn’t committed itself.
He Mocks Rivals with a Smile
Last spring there were rumors that provincial bonuses for blind and needy old-age pensioners would be raised two and a half dollars a month. Officials of B. C.’s Senior Citizens’ Association said such a small raise would be an “utter disgrace.” When the budget came out, pension bonuses were raised five dollars a month.
Then the Vancouver Province told how the stapling marks on its leaflet copy of budget legislation showed that the leaflet had been pulled apart and two new pages—those pertaining to old-age pensions—inserted. To the
Province this indicated that the government had changed its mind at the last minute and that the $2.50 rumor was a “kite.”
Bennett is also a master at infuriating opposition members with his sharp tongue, then mocking them with his evei'-ready smile. Once, during Bennett’s feud with the Coalition, former
premier Byron Johnson was so irritated by his needling that he snapped, “Sit down, brother, you’re going to listen to what I have to say.” Bennett sat down, smiling innocently, and made Johnson madder than ever.
It’s not surprising that Bennett knows all the legislative tricks, for no one works harder at politics. Once, in an altercation with the Coalition, he shouted angrily across the assembly floor, “I do not view politics as a game.” That was an understatement. Politics is Bennett’s life and his personal habits leave no chink in his political armor.
He attends the United Church regularly and doesn’t smoke, drink or swear. He’s an erect five foot ten with a fresh pink complexion and dark hair scarcely flecked with grey. He wears conservative grey suits, pearl-grey ties, black Homburg hats and drives a modest late-model Chevrolet. His Kelowna home, a large but oldfashioned stucco place, is hidden in seven acres of trees and meadow.
His wife prefers to be known as a neighborly small-town sort of woman rather than as a Victoria socialite. When a Kelowna girl went to hospital in Vancouver, the Premier’s wife collected an autograph book of cabinet ministers’ signatures for the sick child. When her daughter Anita was married in Kelowna, Mrs. Bennett carried back pieces of wedding cake for her neighbors at the Bennetts’ Victoria apartment.
The Premier belongs to the ritzy Victoria Union Club and sometimes lunches there with his thirty-four-yearold attorney-general, Robert Bonner, but never joins in the club’s poker games.
When the Socreds came to power a distinct drought descended on Victoria’s social drinkers. Gone are governmental cocktail parties of other years. The Premier throws one or two non-alcoholic dinners yearly. He attends other parties but leaves early and if he drinks anything it’s ginger ale.
However he’s too good a businessman to be prim about liquor. At Christmas when passing out bonus cheques to his hardware employees, he kids his old friend and top salesman, Colin Campbell, “Remember, it’s those last two drinks that get you.”
This mild sort of banter is daring compared to most Bennett jokes. Last spring CCFer Randolph Harding, one of the brightest debaters in the legislature, remarked that the government couldn’t make up its mind about hospital insurance.
Bennett: You’re a mind reader?
Harding: I’ve been around long
enough to read yours.
Bennett: That’s how my friend has so many clean thoughts.
Usually Bennett is too absorbed in his job even for this austere type of humor. Often in the morning he phones ahead to the office to get his staff busy on a problem before he arrives, usually around nine. At lunch time he talks politics. He rests briefly after the evening meal, then plunges into paper work or speeches far into the night.
“He’s one of those queer ducks who
seem to hit their stride about 10.30 or 11 p.m.,” says a friend.
Such is Bennett’s interest in politics that it dominates even his reading. “On a holiday maybe I’ll read something lighter for a start,” he says, “but I always get back to political biographies or histories of the rise and fall of movements.”
He acquired this reading taste when he was eleven. His farmer father, Andrew Havelock Bennett, of Hastings, N.B., was no politician but in the summer of 1911 he, like the rest of Canada, was swept up in the furore over reciprocal trade with the U. S. Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals had been on the verge of closing such an agreement but the Conservatives raised such a rumpus that the government dissolved. The election campaign was afire with British patriotism, fear of U. S. domination and slogans like “No truck or trade with the Yankees.”
Bennett Sr. took Cece, one of five children, to a Conservative political rally. The boy was exhilarated by the oratory and excitement. In the subsequent election the great Laurier’s Liberals lost forty-six seats. A Maritimes lawyer named Robert. L. Borden became prime minister and young Maritimer Bennett realized that no government is impregnable. Perhaps even he could be premier.
lie Married the Teacher
From then on Bennett struggled to be top man in everything he tackled. The day he was seventeen and a half (the minimum-age requirement) he enlisted as an RCAF pilot. Eight months later World War I ended. Frustrated, he went to Saint John to learn the hardware business. After two years’ apprenticeship he went to Alberta, pushed a hand truck in the Marshall Wells Ltd. Edmonton warehouse, moved up to the sales staff, won a nationwide sales contest for Marshall Wells employees and, in his mid-twenties, became assistant sales manager for northern Alberta.
In his spare time he studied business management by correspondence course, became a Conservative leader in the Alberta Boys’ Parliament, taught Sunday school and joined a United Church young people’s group where he met Annie Elizabeth May Richards, a schoolteacher.
They were married in 1927 and that year Bennett became partner in two Alberta hardware stores. Three years later he sold out, went to the Okanagan Valley Jo see the cherry blossoms, saw a hardware store in Kelowna and bought the first link in his small chain.
To everyone’s surprise the business flourished although Bennett seemed to be always sitting at the nearest coffee counter arguing politics. Between arguments he bought more stores, raised three children and found time to be president of the Board of Trade for two years, Red Cross Society president for three and president of the local winery for nearly a decade.
Around Kelowna as elsewhere, Bennett has few intimate friends and sometimes antagonizes even them. Pasquale Capozzi, a plump talkative
merchant who’s had the grocery store two doors down from Bennett Hardware since the Premier came to town, says, “I know him hetter’n anybody. He like a band leader, you know. Other fellas play the music but he’s got to lead. Sometimes we argue so much we not speak for a week but we still friends.”
Other neighbors think Bennett is plain obstinate. Once a local business went bankrupt. The creditors, including Bennett, were called together. A lawyer and accountant prepared to settle the technicalities but Bennett beat them to the draw. He took over the meeting without invitation and hustled legal and financial matters to conclusion in a day.
“It was all perfectly businesslike but he brought in some short cuts we’d never seen before,” says accountant Reg Rutherford, a Kelowna friend. “To me that’s typical of Cece’s way and, to some people, it’s irritating.”
By 1941 Bennett had graduated from coffee-counter politics into the big time. He went to Victoria as Conservative member for South Okanagan. With an eye to the future he began to train his sons in the hardware business after school, at $22.50 a month. Now twenty-five-year-old Russell James and twenty-two-year-old William run the business.
At Victoria his disarming appearance earned him nicknames like “the smiling cherub from South Okanagan” but one newspaperman wrote a shrewder appraisal: “Bennett is a boyish-looking
chap but there is nothing immature about his mind.”
The Star of the Session
At first Bennett was an ardent supporter of coalition government. By 1946 he was just as fiercely opposed to it. If he had received a cabinet post, Bennett might have remained loyal but the outspoken young member was not a government favorite. He sometimes voted against the Coalition and he couldn’t get along with Finance Minister Herbert Anscomb.
Twice, in 1946 and 1950, Bennett fought Anscomb for the B. C. Tory leadership and lost. In 1948 Bennett lost a try for a Conservative federal seat. By late 1950 it was apparent there was no future for him as a Conservative.
On the afternoon of March 15, 1951, Bennett rose in the legislature and tore into the government as never before. For more than an hour he denounced its policies in general and several ministers in particular. Then he concluded grandly, “I am officially advising you, Madam Speaker, that I now dissociate myself from the present cabinet and coalition government both in this house and throughout the province. I now sit in the legislature as an independent member.”
It was the star performance of the session. No member had ever before abandoned his party so dramatically. Bennett’s stock as a showman soared. The rebel couldn’t actually stalk across the assembly floor because he was already sitting on the opposition side with the coalition overflow. But during the afternoon-evening recess he joined some CCF members in the back row. They pounded their desks in welcome, probably the last time a CCFer has applauded Cece Bennett.
His next move was no surprise. From time to time he had lauded Alberta Social Credit and on Dec. 6 he joined the B. C. movement.
During the Socred election campaign of the following spring Bennett was Exhibit A. His new friends hailed him as “a man of courage” who had seen the light. B. C. was then getting
its first taste of the evangelistic razzledazzle which now distinguishes all Social Credit campaigns. Candidates quoted from the Bible, sang hymns and promised to go to Victoria with a Bible in one hand and good government in the other. Nowadays the hymn, O God Our Help in Ages Past, is a sort of theme song for the Social Credit League and Socreds toss off phrases like “Social Credit offers hope almost like the coming of Christ two thousand years ago.”
Bennett does not indulge in religious rhetoric but he sings hymns lustily and, on the platform, his words tumble out with a fervor that excites his audiences. At his 1952 opening campaign speech in the rural district of Benvoulin, every seat in the school auditorium was filled and his supporters had to fetch a truckload of chairs. In the election he led the South Okanagan field by more than three thousand votes.
The over-all result was so close and sometimes so confused by the new alternative voting system (which Bennett has since abandoned) that it took four weeks to get the final count: Social Credit, 19; CCF, 18; Liberals, 6; Conservatives, 2; Labor, 1.
On July 15 the Social Crediters, in closed session and by secret ballot, chose Bennett premier-elect. That night in Victoria he sat in his Empress Hotel suite, cheeks flushed, eyes bright, as congratulatory messages poured in. Finally the telephone operator asked, “Shall I stop the incoming calls?”
“No, no, let them come,” cried Bennett. “I’ll tell you when I’ve had enough.”
No lawyers were elected and Bennett was confronted with the problem of finding an attorney-general. His choice was R. W. Bonner, a lean young barrister with an excellent war record. Bonner, a former Conservative, hadn’t run for election and needed a seat. So did fifty-three-year-old Einar Gunderson, a chartered accountant and Bennett’s prospective minister of finance.
Both became MLAs in fall by-elections and sat on Bennett’s right and left hand when the legislature opened. This prompted CCFer Randolph Harding to remind the Socred backbenchers:
“You've got a Tory captain
With a Tory crew.
And if you don't look out
You'll all be Tories too."
But the Social Crediters were counting on their Tory captain to pilot them through a rough session and he did.
Bennett was sure another election would return a strong Social Credit majority so, instead of treading cautiously and treating the enemy with respect, he taunted the Opposition at every turn, inviting a vote of nonconfidence. The CCF was eager to accept the challenge but the Liberals and Conservatives, who had nothing to gain, held back. Finally they balked at a new plan for redistribution of education costs between government and municipality. The Government was defeated and Bennett grinned broadly as he left the assembly.
As he expected, the CCF tried to form a government but failed to win pledged support from Liberals and Conservatives. In the new election Social Credit rolled back to power with twenty-eight seats but without Tillie Rolston and Einar Gunderson. Mrs. Rolston dropped a close decision to Liberal leader Arthur Laing. Gunderson lost to a Liberal chartered accountant, P. A. Gibbs.
This was a blow for the Premier. Gunderson had consistently refused to commit himself to Social Credit theories. Before any backbenchers could
lay claim to the finance ministry Bennett hastily arranged a fall by-election for the defeated minister. Social Credit waged a furious campaign but Liberal George Gregory, whose campaign slogan was simply “Beat Gunderson,” did just that by ninety-three votes.
This bitter defeat reminded Bennett that even at the height of success nothing is sure in politics. In Kelowna friends found him more willing to listen instead of argue. In Victoria he was unusually co-operative with the Press.
Bennett took over the finance ministry himself although Gunderson helped
bring down a skilful 1954 budget. The budget increased taxation by seven million dollars and yet made some voters think they were getting a bargain. It did this by such small favors as removing sales tax on children’s clothing, sales tax on restaurant meals under a dollar, cutting the amusement tax and raising the old-age pension bonus. Temporarily, at least, Social Credit waters were calm.
But from time to time there are storms, largely through the inexperience and occasional naïveness of the Social Credit MLAs. The Opposition
calls them a “second look” government because, among other things, they’ve had to backtrack publicly on certain issues. One was the ten-percent tax on liquor by the glass imposed in 1953. Heeding a public outcry, the government removed the tax in the 1954 session.
But in that session Speaker Tom Irwin tangled with the Press. Irwin first ruled that no press photographers with flash bulbs could cover the opening of legislature. B. C. newspapers took after him with angry front-page editorials and Irwin backed down. He
changed the ruling to two “pool” photographers, then four. In the end the leading dailies boycotted the opening altogether.
There was an awkward moment at the session opening when the Rev. Charles Parker of Peace River riding rose to move a reply to the Throne Speech, got carried away in Social Credit thoughts and called on B. C. to “put God first” and send men to Ottawa “who know the facts and have the courage of their convictions to restore to parliament the right to issue money equal to production.” This was the first and, so far, the only time that Social Credit doctrine has crept into a legislature speech.
Then Mrs. Lydia Arsens, a Victoria MLA, stung by some newspaper comment, suggested newspapers be put on a point system. Starting with one hundred, they would be docked a mark each time they printed what she considered a distorted or detrimental story. It sounded like a plan for press censorship and, later, reporters pressed her for more details. Attorney-General Bonner hastened to her side and smoothly suggested that what she really meant was a self-imposed licensing system.
As long as Bennett’s camp rides herd on such extremists, B. C. is with him. R. P. MacLean, editor of the Kelowna Courier, who’s not a Social Créditer but predicted that party’s surprise 1952 victory, says of Bennett, “He’s good for at least another session after this one.”
A Lesser Evil than GCF
Bennett’s theories still bear little resemblance to Social Credit as founded by Scottish Major C. H. Douglas. Douglas envisioned Social Credit as a challenge to the power of the financial world, with government - operated banks. Bennett, as he explained to me one day last fall, likes to compare Social Credit to a car on a hilly road. Going uphill you apply the gas, he says. Going downhill you ease off the accelerator. Gas, in his metaphor, is increased or decreased purchasing power.
“But that isn’t Douglas’ Social Credit,” 1 said.
“Oh yes,” said the Premier. “He didn’t have the businessman’s viewpoint; that’s the only difference.”
As long as he clings to his businessman’s viewpoint, B. C. business will probably string along with him as a lesser evil than the CCF. The B. C. Liberals and Conservatives are now too weak to figure in the picture.
Because he’s politically acceptable to many non-Socreds, Bennett’s name now comes up along with those of Alberta’s Ernest Manning and national leader Solon Low when Social Creditors dream of sending a government to Ottawa. If such a government materialized in Bennett’s time, Manning, who is eight years younger with several years more legislative experience, would be the favorite for leader. Still, Bennett has achieved the almost impossible before.
Publicly he doesn’t talk about the national leadership. Privately he shrugs off the suggestion.
“Last Christmas I write ‘To Prime Minister Bennett’ on his Christmas present,” says his friend, Pasquale Capozzi. “He just laugh.”
Nevertheless, admirers like Capozzi are confident that the prime minister’s job is the ultimate destiny of the smiling boss of B. C.
“He hate to lose, that fella,” reflects Capozzi. “If he ever lose in politics it kill him. He be like a fish out of water. But he never lose and he never do anything wrong.” ★