Column

Wacky’s formula: never whine, never complain, just pretend your critics don’t even exist

Allan Fotheringham March 5 1979
Column

Wacky’s formula: never whine, never complain, just pretend your critics don’t even exist

Allan Fotheringham March 5 1979

Wacky’s formula: never whine, never complain, just pretend your critics don’t even exist

Column

Allan Fotheringham

All the great ones have a certainty of purpose. It would never occur to them that they might be wrong. They press on, secure in the knowledge that the rest of the ignorant world eventually will catch up with their mental processes. William Andrew Cecil Bennett had that certainty. Like John Diefenbaker, he was defeated a half dozen times in attempts at public office before he could get elected the first time. Tries for federal Conservative nominations, for provincial seats, for local Tory positions. All fell flat. As with Dief, all it did was strengthen the resolve. Destiny awaited.

When W.A.C. Bennett, who died on the weekend, finally did achieve power, it mattered little to him that the vehicle was a kooky populist collection of funny-money artistes under the grab-bag title of Social Credit. The vehicle was unimportant; paramount was the man and his mission.

There was the grand vision. The man known to the rest of Canada as “Wacky” Bennett for the 20 years he governed British Columbia, pictured by cartoonists as a bumpkin in a homburg, never wavered from his sweeping concepts. His tactics were often mean and petty, but the design was vast. Critics were too trifling even to be answered. Over the years that this reporter sat in’fiis office for a chat—the same reporter who gleefully caricatured his party as a bumbling gang of woolhats and numbskulls and who referred in print to the man on the other side of the desk as Premier Whack C. Bombast—he never once even acknowledged that he knew what my occupation was, or that he had ever read a single word I had written. Newspaper carpers, in the sweep of things, were insignificant. He never whined, never complained—he used instead the most effective weapon any politician can use: he pretended you didn’t exist.

It was symbolic that the first political gathering he attended, as a boy of 11 in New Brunswick, was a torchlight procession to burn an effigy of Sir Wilfrid Laurier on his defeat by Robert Borden.

He never forgot that and, 45 years later, realizing the media age’s fascination with a good fire, shot a burning arrow into a raft on Okanagan Lake piled high with “bonds” in a hokum ceremony to signify that B.C.’s “debt” was wiped out. From afar, he appeared a clown. Up close, he was the most shrewd politician ever produced in B.C., a book-end of the country along with that other sly showman, Joey Smallwood.

The vision did not waver. When the private power monopoly refused to bow to him, he turned instant socialist and

confiscated B.C. Electric—eerily passing the emergency legislation as the funeral cortege containing the body of the power company chairman passed the now-nationalized headquarters. When the ferries went on strike, he seized them too, arguing effectively that in waterbound B.C., ferry routes were merely extensions of the highway system and therefore must be publicly owned. His B.C. Railway, fingering through the muskeg and forests of the north, dragged the resources of the hinterland to tidewater and created instant towns (and instant Socred voters) in the bush.

He had the simplicity of someone who drew his strength from small-town virtues. “City states always collapsed,” he said. “They did in Greece, and they will anywhere else because they’re built on themselves.” One day in his office he swept a contemptuous arm at a mention of all those businessmen in high glass towers in Vancouver: “Know what they’re doing? All they’re doing is

cross-filing sawdust through a knot hole.” A classic description of modern office life that will always cling.

It would explain why he, a teetotaler, would in the Depression personally finance the Capozzi family winery in his beloved Okanagan Valley: though the grape would never touch his lips, the winery would help sustain his town of Kelowna. It didn’t matter to him, after deserting the Tory party on a matter of principle, that his route to power lay

with, as one historian described it, “a drab collection of monetary fetishists, British Israelites, naturopaths, chiropractors, preachers, pleaders and anti-Semites” whose founder had been a major with the Ninth Gurkha Rifles of the Indian Army. It soon became the Bennett party. Bennett knew where he wanted to go. He urged, in the 1930s, formation of a central bank and, once the Bank of Canada was established, was outraged that he, an unknown hardware merchant from Kelowna, B.C., was not accepted on the board. It fuelled his resentment of

central Canada and, though it took him 40 years, he got his revenge on the charter banks. He formed the Bank of B.C.

He was ruthless in politics, soft on people. As a premier who cried openly in the legislature over the mushy sentimentality of Rev. Phil Gaglardi, he eventually was done in by his own loyalty in his 1972 defeat as Gaglardi knifed him publicly. The NDP’s Dave Barrett, who succeeded him as premier, says, “The one thing I learned from Bennett is how to kill. The time to kick a politician is when he’s down.” There are those who think both Barrett and Premier Bill Bennett have been unalterably scarred by their exposure to the old man’s dominance. They forever will remain preachers of his style.

He purposely sought the enmity of the establishment, knowing that was the key to the kingdom. Nobody liked him but the people. He would have been 79 in a few months, as old as the century. He was eccentric, stubborn, proud—just like the province he loved.