The apprenticeship of Billy Bennett

After a year of trying, the kid is starting to show some promise

Judith Timson September 20 1976

The apprenticeship of Billy Bennett

After a year of trying, the kid is starting to show some promise

Judith Timson September 20 1976

The apprenticeship of Billy Bennett

After a year of trying, the kid is starting to show some promise

Judith Timson

He could always consider it a compliment. After all, not every provincial premier is likened to a character out of The Wizard Of Oz. But there you are. For better or worse, Bill Bennett, the Social Credit Premier of British Columbia, often reminds me of the Tin Man. I envision him, his blandly goodlooking face with the slightly pained smile, his head nodding atop a rigid armored body, singing sadly to himself“... if I only had a heart.” The Tin Man as politician. British Columbia after the fall. Bye-bye Dave Barrett and the old-heart-on-thesleeve loving, caring and sharing, hello Socred grey flannel technicians tinkering with the economy. British Columbia without a heart.

But watch him now, this 44-year-old political neophyte, hunched over a desk in the reception area of his tacky constituency headquarters in Kelowna (housed above the family hardware store), on the phone to one Mrs. Koral. A senior citizen, her welfare payments have inexplicably stopped coming, and she has been crying. Crying to herself. Crying to Bill Bennett’s secretary. Crying, finally, to the Premier, who a minute earlier had picked up the phone, dialed her number and said: “Hello, it’s Bill Bennett.” The sounds emanating from the receiver are agitated. Soon, in a matter-of-fact tone, he manages to draw the details from her and hangs up with a promise: “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it.” His performance is discomfiting. The technician would be happier studying the statistics of the system than dealing with one of its victims. Still, it’s a valiant effort, and the mind takes a quick run back to the rigid, defensive figure Bill Bennett presented to the world before he led his ragtag band of car dealers, recycled Liberals and converted Conservatives, under the slightly suspicious Social Credit label, to victory last December. Not quite a year has passed since Canada’s third largest province (and one of the most affluent areas in the world to elect a Socialist government)

thumbed its collective nose at Dave Barrett and his bumbling NDP government, and it seems on this day and in other recent encounters that Bennett, rigid no longer, defensive no longer, is more relaxed, more able to engage people.

A concern he voiced earlier intrudes upon the moment: “We’ve got to be careful. There’s a danger of becoming cold, grey administrators. In this Age of the Technician, we cannot lose touch with the political flavor.” While he does not say “with the people,” that is clearly what he means. Ushering in a kind of politics new to BC, pegged more on professionalism than personality, he now seems prepared to concede that the way, the truth and the light do not lie solely in a balanced budget. Power, it seems, has softened the edges around Bill Bennett, revealing a capacity for growth that few outsiders suspected was there. And while it isn’t what you’d call heart, definitely not what you’d call soul, it ain’t, as they say, half bad.

“What’s happening out there in Lotus Land? Got yourself a right-wing government, eh?”The questions from the easterners are more curious than polite. They had heard so much about Dave Barrett, the Socialist Jew who brought his Jesuit education and passion for social reform to a province that had been run for 20 years out of the back pocket of powerful, flamboyant W. A. C. Bennett. Now Barrett, who bungled the books and joked his way through the last election, has himself been run out of town by Bennett’s son. It’s a nice plot. They oughta make a movie. And they should include footage from election night last December, when a smiling, aging “Wacky” Bennett stood euphoric in his son’s chaotic headquarters and proclaimed to the cameras: “Now, a people’s government is back in power. And everybody can breathe easier tonight.” If the band had been cued, it could have swung right into the Bennett campaign theme song: Happy Days Are Here Again.

Only they’re not. For one thing, the son

is determined not to make the same political mistakes as the father. Which means avoiding in his own government the internecine warfare, vicious pecking order, and sycophants that he freely admits his father inadvertently encouraged during his 20year reign. It also means not hanging around for 20 years: Bill Bennett plans to be out of political hock by the time he’s the age his father was when he became premier, which gives him about nine years. As they say in the hardware business, Bill Bennett expects to have a short shelf-life.

But back to the easterner’s curious question. The answer lies, not in a generalized response (as in, “Well, it’s more middle-ofthe-road than right wing”) but in the recitation of specifics. For instance, your aunt and uncle who live in Victoria will tell you that, shocking as it may seem, this Socred government has gone and raised the ferry rates, which means it costs them $36 instead of $18 for a round trip by car to Vancouver. My dear, the summer tourist business was shot. Those Socreds are callous. And your high-flying friend with the Corvette Stingray will offer up his finest expletives for a government that felt compelled, soon after taking office, to triple his car insurance (from $238 to $654) with the sombre explanation that the NDP had not been making the government-owned Insurance Corporation of British Columbia pay its own way. It seems that in the eyes of Bill Bennett (who just happens, along with eight other members of his government, to

be a millionaire) there is no such thing as a free lunch. Pay as you go. It’s an ancient philosophy, and one that “Horatio Alger with a head start,” as Vancouver Sun columnist Allan Fotheringham calls Bennett, learned not by going to university (he never made it past grade 12) but by actually working for a living from the time he was 14. It’s not the type of philosophy your younger sister’s laid-back friends had in mind when they came out to the Coast to dig the sunshine, but unfortunately they find that since the Happy Days Are Here Again gang took office it has not been so easy to sashay over to the welfare office and pick up a little walking around money.

Yes, the government, committed to austerity and “getting BC moving again.” tightened the screws on the welfare system,

the arch villain in the piece being Human Resources Minister William VanderZalm, an industrious Dutch-Canadian (a millionaire), and a cabinet choice of which Bennett is particularly proud. It was Vander Zalm who, a matter of days after the government took office, warned welfare recipients to “pick up your shovels” and start looking for work. There is a twinkle in Bennett’s eye when he recalls the controversial “red-neck” statements made by some of his more hapless ministers during the first few months. In these economically troubled times and in a province where the subject of welfare rip-offs is daily fodder for hot-line radio shows, he thinks Vander Zalm’s remarks hit the spot with more people than they alienated. But the stripping of the welfare rolls, and a proposed

change in the administration of the guaranteed income for old-age pensioners have also served to create an attitude of despair among the truly needy and a widespread lassitude among those employed in the social services. This government does not care about people. It’s a lament as likely to be heard from an anguished social worker as from an unemployed laborer.

But would you call a government rightwing when it began working on tougher consumer protection laws, compulsory seat-belt legislation, the creation of an ombudsman and an auditor general? On the other hand, could you label it progressive when it dismantled the Status of Women office and introduced legislation giving the government the power to supervise strike votes, a move decried by one labor leader as “crap in this day and age”? As local political columnists stampeded to give Bennett the rookie of the year award, as much for his improved performance in the legislature (after almost three years as an MLA, he has finally learned how to debate with a flourish) as for his tough administrative approach, the words of Vancouver Sun columnist Frances Russell seemed particularly apt: The first year of Bennett’s government, she wrote, will be remembered for one thing—it heralded the advent of “modern, professional, pragmatic politics” to BC. “The politician in the grey flannel suit has finally arrived.” Charisma has laid down and died. Chutzpah is a thing of the past. The new leader—“a highly skilled canny politician,” as Russell called him— was running his government, à la Peter Lougheed, like a well-oiled business with a “degree of political professionalism the province has never before seen.”

Privately, however, some of the same people who were throwing kudos to Bennett agonized. Was his government really professional, or was it just a bunch of rubes too rigid and unimaginative to step out of line? And was Bennett responding at all to the human needs of the people? “Sometimes,” said one of them privately, “I think Bennett is a political monster created by his father.”

The food was mediocre, but the view from the revolving restaurant high atop the Holiday Inn Harbor Side in downtown Vancouver was superb. Bill Bennett, after spending the morning doing political penance on a radio call-in show, took a sip of his lunchtime drink and admitted, “In a way, I think the way I was brought up was a tragedy.” Often accused of being insensitive, he was bemoaning his own emotional rigidity, and if the admission itself was startling the fact that he said anything about it at all was astounding. Was this the same Bill Bennett who had had so much difficulty carrying on informal chats with reporters that he would resort to giving them a quickie speech? He remembers those days, and his own fear of being unskilled in manipulative politics, which left him extremely defensive: “You get afraid

to make a mistake. You try to be as sterile as possible.” Bill Bennett does not like to make mistakes. His sister, Anita, four years older, says he has the strongest will to win she has ever seen. He is achingly competitive, always straining to prove himself.

Indeed, he carries all the emotional baggage of a son or daughter struggling to live up to the image of a famous father. Outwardly he has learned to control his once fierce temper, and steel himself to the taunts of “Daddy’s boy,” but inwardly, every step of the way, he is showing everyone what he’s made of. Watch him on the tennis courts, rather out of shape after being away for a while. An agile, relatively trim man who only learned tennis after he was 30, and whose game is no shame, he blows a return shot and his voice, berating himself, drifts across the court. “Jeez! That was a stupid, stupid, stupid shot.” His partner that day, an old business friend from Kelowna, accepts the competitive nature of the man the way you would accept any quirk in a friend—weird, but that’s Bill.

Until recently, the son always referred to his father as “the former premier” or “the former incumbent.” Both of them have taken pains to establish Bill’s independence. “He hasn’t reported to me since he was 17,” the elder Bennett told one interviewer. Their relationship is fierce and fraught with a special kind of intensity, magnified by all that public scrutiny. The father is desperately proud of the son. The son handles the father with care: “There are some things I just don’t discuss with him,” says Bill. “He’s so emotional, he cries if you say hello.”

Last March, during opening day ceremonies in the legislature, young Bennett strode into the packed assembly hall shaking hands with many of the distinguished ; guests on the floor. He ignored his father,

I sitting only two seats back of him. “I honestly didn’t see him.” Later, however, during a long-winded attempt by the NDP opposition to delay opening ceremonies, his father had words for him. He leaned over, tapped Labor Minister Allan Williams on the shoulder, and muttered a message. Williams, seated directly behind Bennett the younger, passed it on. Now, half a year later, Bennett reveals its substance. “He asked me if I thought someone should tell the guests waiting over at the reception that we would be late.” A short laugh. “On my first day as Premier, it was the last thing on my mind.” In the press on that day, the message from father to son was brandished as evidence that the “Kelowna connection” was alive and well.

Kelowna, BC, nestled in the Okanagan Valley, is like any other Canadian small town with postcard perfect scenery, lush ! ripe orchards, an impeccable climate, and I a retired millionaire on every corner. A paradise of sorts. In 1930, a financially wary W. A. C. Bennett, the shrewd son of ; an incredibly poor New Brunswick dirt farmer, sold his hardware store in Alberta

looking for greener pastures. He gladly settled for orchards. “He saw that the cherries were ripe and that was it,” says Anita, the eldest of the three Bennett children (brother Russell, who takes care of the family hardware business, is two years older than Bill). Anita is the only one of the three who went to university. “The family thought I deserved to go,” she explains. “The boys were always more interested in business.”

Since his election, the press has recounted with awe the fact that Bill Bennett, the son of a wealthy man, was forced to start working at the age of 14, and has run himself ragged ever since, first odd-jobbing in a plumbing and heating plant, and then, with brother R.J., running a store, “sleeping on the furniture at night and selling it by day.” But at least two of the Bennett offspring think the hard labor stories are funny. “Everyone worked in those days,” laughs Anita. “We lived in a large house and every Saturday we drew jobs. Somedays I got to pile wood while the boys dusted.” It was fun, says Bennett. Raised in what he describes as a “fundamentally Canadian home,” the only thing for a boy to do was follow the mood of the country, to rebuild it after the war years. Loafing about was unthinkable. Even today Bennett is constitutionally opposed to taking it easy. Setting a relentless example for his ministers, he sleeps a maximum of six hours a night, seldom bothers to eat lunch (preferring to occupy his noon hour with a government report and a bran muffin), and often schedules 6.30 a.m. business meetings. He pushes himself at a bruising pace all day and then looks round impatiently at night to see where the rest of his colleagues have got to. After loading up several of his ministers with dual portfolios and watching one of them, Provincial Secretary Grace McCarthy, almost stagger under the weight (she was also House Leader and Minister of Recreation and Travel Industry), he has promised to lighten their burdens this fall.

In a nondescript office above the Bennett store in Kelowna, Tony Tozer, who went through school with Bill Bennett, worked in the hardware business with him for 25 years and is now director of the Premier’s office in Victoria (evidence of the small circle the Premier travels in), reaches behind the bookshelf, pulls out a framed black-and-white picture, and lovingly wipes the dust from it. My first impulse is to laugh when confronted with four smiling men (Tozer, Bill Bennett, his brother and a fourth man) proudly flanking a set of bedsprings. Circa 1952, two years after Bennett rushed out of grade 12 and into the arms of small-town business, the photo also features what men would have in those days referred to as a “sassy” blond perched on the frame, that goes with the springs. The caption underneath reads: “Blond Princess Bedroom Suite, $299.50.” A less than auspicious beginning for BC’S future premier, a man who distinguished

himself in high school only by the aggressive way he played basketball. Never a “big winner on the social scene or academically,” he admits it might have been “glamorous” to go to university but it just wasn’t in the stars. Besides, he saw a lot of people waste those years in school, while he, along with brother R.J., and with no help, they hasten to add, from father (except the obvious benefit of the Bennett

name),acquired the giant American hardware store chain of Marshall Wells, part of a $34 million shopping, hotel and residential complex, a finance company, a saw mill and other odds and ends. Today each of the boys is a millionaire and “easily” worth more than their father, says Bennett, who to avoid conflict of interest charges has since placed his interests in the eager hands of a trust company.

It was a comfortable, happy small-town existence that Bill Bennett, his wife Audrey, and four sons led in Kelowna. Until 1973, his only political foray was his election as president of the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce, albeit unopposed. But as far back as 1966, he says, he had wanted to run provincially, and those who see him as the insouciant, last-minute recipient of his father’s flickering torch are reminded that “I have been a political student all my life.” Indeed, at the age of five he was trundled off on the train with his father to observe the national Progressive Conservative convention in Ottawa. Ever since then, he had been a shadowy presence behind the elder Bennett, who did not become premier until after Bill had grown up and gone into business, at major political conventions. But why, if he wanted it so badly, did he take so long to take his first political step? “It was impossible for me to do what I wanted to do as the son of the Premier.” He shies away from the popular image of the Bennett family, paterfamilias presiding, sitting down to slice up the pie. “It was never a matter of the Cartwrights dividing up the ranch. Never any question of a dynasty.” (And yet, with Bill in office, sister Anita now whispers that family hopes have been flamed that a third-generation Bennett might carry on—“Father says he can see the signs, but he won’t say in which family.”)

When he went after his father’s South

Okanagan seat in 1973, no one could have accused Bill Bennett of having, politically, a winning personality, but he possessed a gritty determination, an almost unearthly single-mindedness that became the driving force, when he was subsequently elected Social Credit leader, in rebuilding the shattered remains of what was once the province’s populist party, now in little pieces in the wake of Dave Barrett. “As your new leader 1 am my own man,” he proclaimed at his leadership convention, and then went about tripling the membership of the party, crisscrossing the province, enticing three prominent Liberal MLAS into the fold. The senior Bennett once remarked that his son was a tougher political animal than he was, and Anita agrees. Her brother, she says, is “far more ruthless in removing unwanted objects. Father had a kinder, and a more oblique approach.”

Hansard records that late last spring Gary Lauk, the former NDP minister of economic development called the Premier “a dictator and a guttersnipe.” What it does not mention, says Lauk, is that the Premier had gleefully shouted across “some absolutely gutter-level aspersion” on the personal life of Lauk’s friend and colleague, former NDP highways minister Graham Lea. On another occasion, Bennett, tired of the old “Daddy” taunts, told the House in effect, that one prominent member of the NDP didn’t have a daddy. And once, says Lauk, the Premier sneered to black NDP MLA Emery Barnes that he had seen him “with his tight pants on walking up Davie Street”—a hangout for gay prostitutes. Now what kind of a man would say a thing like that, asks Lauk. “He says something terrible and then he smiles— he’s almost psychopathic.”

No time for predictable insults, Bennett brushes them aside. There are other more important indignities to consider. Like the time last spring when the Habitat people gave him a presentation addressed to Premier W. A. C. Bennett. “That was from the Department of External Affairs, can you believe it?” And the reality, as he sees it, that “I’m gonna suffer from two comparisons—with W.A.C. and with Barrett.” As far as standing image to image with his father is concerned, Bill Bennett has obviously forged some long-standing agreement with his psyche to hang tough. And as for the other comparison, he is still reaching for reasons as to why he cannot be the exciting, flamboyant, emotionally excessive leader that Dave Barrett was. At the age of 44, a self-admitted late maturer, having finally proven certain necessary truths to his father, he seems distressed over his inability to emote. “1 can’t wear my heart on my sleeve,” he says slowly. “I can’t talk about loving and caring and sharing. It just wouldn’t be honest.”

And then: “I know there are some people who need to know 1 care. I just have to find a way to tell them.”