Canadian News

The man who won’t sellout

Thomas Hopkins February 5 1979
Canadian News

The man who won’t sellout

Thomas Hopkins February 5 1979

The man who won’t sellout

Thomas Hopkins

Bill Bennett was mad and getting madder. The day before, two days after Christmas, he had been skiing with his family at Big White Mountain outside Kelowna, in south central British Columbia. The skies were cobalt blue, the air was steel-cold enough to brighten the natural ruddiness of his face, when Bennett heard on a squawking radio that Montreal-based Canadian Pacific Investments was attempting to make a corporate snatch of B.C.’s huge forest company, MacMillan Bloedel. On the radio—not even a courtesy phone call to warn him. And by CPI, a subsidiary of Canadian Pacific—leastloved in B.C. of all the Eastern industrial giants. Storming down to the Bennett ski cabin,he made phone calls and arranged for a government plane to fly him to Victoria the next morning. Then, after he got up at 5:30 a.m., a series of capricious pinpricks of fate seemed intent on fanning the B.C. premier’s anger. Because of frozen pipes he had to melt snow to shave, a dead battery forced him to roust out a neighbor with jumper cables. Following behind to see the premier did not get stuck, the neighbor did, and had to be grunted out—so the government plane left without him. Worse the luck for CPI, because when a heavily bearded Bill Bennett finally thrust his jaw into a television camera later that day and testily declared “B.C. is not for sale,” he was clearly not inclined toward negotiation. But if the initial reaction was anger, over the next two weeks Bill Bennett, 46 and premier for three years, coolly exploited British Columbians’ deep-rooted distrust of the CPR as ammunition for a risky punch-up with the eastern giant—and won. That he was canny enough to realize both the risks and the rewards was evident during a 30-minute meeting with directors of the eastern forest company Domtar (who were pushing a deal of their own) when he ruminated, “I can win an election by campaigning against the CPR. I can lose if I don’t.”

The statement may or may not be prophetic but the eyeball-to-eyeball standoff with CPR/CPl’s Ian Sinclair (one insider

reports Sinclair pounding the mahogany table at a Vancouver dinner party, storming, “I am not paid $400,000 a year to lose,

I am paid to win”) showed a man clearly in command. And the dustup with CPI was only one of a remarkable series of cynical, well-thought-out political hammer blows in the past two months that has left a disorganized and confused B.C. opposition gulping for air. Clearly editorial critics can no longer echo such questions as: will the high-school graduate with the hardware store background make it in the steamy B.C. legislature? Will Bill hold the party together? Will he emerge from the shadow of his father W.A.C. Bennett, for 20 years premier of the province? And finally, will Bill find a heart?

Since his 1975 victory over Dave Barrett’s NDP, Bennett has emerged as smart, isolated and non-introspective. A populist as all B.C. politicians must be, a true gut hater of both big business and big unions, a manager more than a builder, a man of the 1970s. That is in contrast to an NDP nervously knotting the ties of ill-fitting, three-piece suits in an attempt to appear respectable, who have been routinely deked out of their union-made underwear by Bennett at every turning.

vidence of Bennett’s blend of opportune timing and hard-ball politics can be seen as far back as the spring when redistribution allowed classic gerrymandering and dissolution of several seats won by troublesome Socred opponents, including mercurial NDPer Rosemary Brown. In a pre-Christmas special session of the legislature, called ostensibly to order striking non-teaching school staff back to work in the West Kootenays of south central B.C., the Socreds slipped a sweeping new section into the Essential Services Disputes Act that greatly increased the number of provincial civil servants under its strike restrictions. The move was seen as an effective challenge to Jim Kinnaird, new head of the B.C. Federation of Labor (see box on page 23). That was followed by a new Ministry of Deregulation that, combined with the recent initiative restricting municipal tax increases to five per cent, allowed the government to leap harmlessly onto the potent tax-revolt bandwagon and cut the knees from under spunky Tory leader (and sole Conservative MLA) Vic Stephens. Then, after heroically rescuing MacBlo from ihe clutches of CPI, Bennett dazzled the financial world and divested the government of B.C. Resources Investment Corporation (Crown-owned holding corporation for NDP-acquired companies and oil and gas rights) by giving away its assets in five-share lots to every B.C. man, woman and child. Other announced goodies include legislation to free up Crown land for private holdings and a m lessening of homeowner taxes followed by Ë a cookie-jar budget sweetened by last ^ year’s $140-million surplus. That may lead x

to an early spring election call based on the nonconfidence motion in the budget, although Bennett needn’t go to the polls until early 1981.

crp he savvy moves are not those of the U uncertain, blushing man who first came to politics after winning the byelection for his father’s Kelowna seat, following the elder Bennett’s defeat by Dave Barrett and retirement in 1972. In Victoria he was fresh from running his dad’s business and, with his brother R.J., becoming a millionaire with shopping plazas and other interests. Elected leader shortly after, he was faced with a feuding and demoralized party holding only 10 of 55 seats (“The reason why I didn’t concentrate on the legislature was the knives were coming from behind”) and a triumphant NDP that was merciless in its ridicule of the awkward new boy.

W.A.C. says with pride today, “He’s half as old and twice as tough,” but it is not a toughness learned at his father’s knee. W.A.C. would, from the time of his election as premier in 1952 and before, leave Bill’s mother and his brother and older sister, Anita, on their own. Bill was working at the age of 13 to earn pocket money and left school after Grade 12 to help run the family business. And when he ventured into politics, he was soon being described as someone “who knew nothing but hardware, real-estate speculation and what he read in the morning papers.”

Bennett freely admits he was a poor opposition leader, but when he ousted the lurching, accident-prone NDP in 1975, he found his element, launching a steely-eyed program of modernization for the creak-

ing old party. To help maintain the combat readiness of the 85,000 short-backand-sides Socred faithful in the hinterland, Bill instituted some 40 mini-conventions a year in towns throughout the prov-

ince. He also gathered around him an inner circle of trusted old friends such as Kelowna crony Tony Tozer, communications director and former ad man David Brown and veteran Socred street fighter Dan (White Eminence) Campbell, whom most consider the crafty Rommel behind the current political offensive. But Bennett is clearly the boss, keeping staff and colleagues alike at arms length. The jerrybuilt coalition of Socreds, silk-stocking Liberals and Tories slapped together in 1975 to turf out the NDP has been skilfully

held together by Bennett although, in the words of one mildly bitter Liberal functionary, “power can be powerful cement.” Perhaps most impressive of all, Bennett has abandoned the parochial constitutional naïveté of his predecessors, developing thoughtful, well researched, if not new, position papers on regional and federal-provincial problems. All that, combined with a bubbling northeast centred around the oil and gas lands of Fort St. John (see box on page 22), promised new port facilities for Prince Rupert, projected growth of 3.6 per cent, record forest industry profits and a whacking big surplus, must make Bennett, a man who, it is said, plays tennis not to relax but to win, clearly satisfied. Equally gratifying is the leaderless state of the provincial Liberals with the defection last fortnight of Gordon Gibson to the federal party, the Tories with only one sitting member and an NDP still recovering from an apprehended election Red Alert in the fall.

O’m enjoying every minute of it,” says Bennett, over a glass of Johnny Walker Red in a seaside hotel in Powell River, north of Vancouver. Relaxed, with bare feet up on an air chair, the chippy, coiled public persona dissolves and knowledgeable chatter about football (he had missed the Super Bowl because of an illtimed speech) comes without strain. His life in Victoria is monkish, starting with a wake-up call in his 12th-floor suite in an apartment hotel, moving to a two-mile run and a breakfast of juice and vitamin supplement. The rest of the day is deskbound. He returns to his wife, Audrey, and their family in a white house on 13 acres

of orchard near Kelowna on the weekend.

The picture for Bennett is not all clear sailing, however. Worrisome polls, although done before the MacBlo incident and five-share giveaway schemes, reveal a clear lead for the NDP. The elastic logic of the slogan “B.C. is not for sale,” used by a government that recently sold a provinceowned bus line and poultry operation to American interests, has not escaped NDP leader Dave Barrett, who calls the phrase and the affair “juvenile cynicism.” Also bothersome is B.C.’s continuing high unemployment (projections for 1979 reach 8.8 per cent) and the long memories of voters stung in 1975 by Bennett’s Draconian measures—tripling provincial car insurance rates and doubling ferry rates. A continuing problem is Bennett’s utter lack of warmth in public—he has been dubbed the Tin Man.

In a nation of corporate and sonorous

leaders, B.C. wears its heart on its raindappled sleeve. As a result, predicting elections in this vibrant province that has thrown up three unconventional premiers in a row is a sap’s game. With both the Socreds and the NDP traditionally controlling an immovable block of the popular vote, it will be the ability of the big boys to woo the 11 per cent of the electorate that did not vote for either of the major parties in 1975 that will determine the outcome. Although he says he wants to be out of politics by the time he is 52, B.C.’s Bill Bennett has been running hard and looking over his shoulder all his life.“He is not about to let up now.