COVER

‘There is no easy way to lay off people’

October 17 1983
COVER

‘There is no easy way to lay off people’

October 17 1983

‘There is no easy way to lay off people’

COVER

Maclean’s: Why, apparently without warning, did you decide to try to bring about a new kind of society in British Columbia?

Bennett: The international recession caused the change. It struck the industrialized world, this country and British Columbia very hard.

With our economy twothirds export oriented we had to make some very hard decisions. Not only has our economy dropped but the growth rate we experienced in the 1960s and 1970s is not projected for the 1980s or the 1990s. So we have to make our priority decisons now.

Maclean’s: Most Canadians are now aware that

Few governments of any stripe operating in any jurisdiction have aroused as much controversy as Premier William Bennett's Social Credit administration in British Columbia. His determination to drastically reduce public spending, fire a quarter of the province 's civil servants and do away with most of British Columbia's social agencies has created such bitter controversy that union leaders are threatening a general strike for Oct. 31. In an exclusive interview with Maclean’s Senior Contributing Editor Peter C. Newman, the premier explained his radical approach to government.

the recession also led to a collapse in government revenues.

Bennett: Especially resource revenues, which dropped from a high of about $1.6 billion in 1980 to $570 million last year, reducing our total revenues in real terms. That has not happened in any other province—ever.

Maclean’s: There have been two main reactions to your program—opposition from special interest groups objecting to specific cuts and some fairly devastating criticisms of your methods. Is it possible to make drastic cuts gently?

Bennett: There is no such thing. There is no easy way to lay off people, especially good people.

Maclean’s: You cannot fine tune a sledgehammer.

Bennett: It is not a sledgehammer. Most of the restraints we embarked on were started last year. The Compensation Stabilization Act which puts limits and

conditions on bargaining in the public sector has been in for over a year— that’s part of the program we are refining now. Downsizing of government, which started last year, involves 25 per cent or 11,000 people, but we are half way there through a freeze on hiring and natural attrition. We need the tools — conditions and language that you find in the private sector collective agreements. Maclean’s: Despite these and other cuts, your expenditures for this year are up by 12 per cent. What would that increase have been without the restraints?

Bennett: We’re paying $180 million in interest on last year’s debt. That is even with the reduced deficits we are achieving through some of our tough actions, which will make a $5-billion to $6billion difference by 1988/89. That, in turn, will make the difference between carrying interest charges on over $1

billion and having less

than half of that.

Maclean’s: You're still projecting a $1.6 billion deficit this year and another $1 billion next year. Have you articulated any specific goal, such as next year's budget being smaller?

Bennett: If you set up arbitrary goals you sometimes get caught. We are going into the budgetary process for next year now in which every ministry will be evaluating its programs, opening up those which may be desirable, but not affordable, for cabinet discussion. The other problem is that this country is

fast becoming an undesirable place to do business because of the multiplication of tax levels that will be needed to repay any national and provincial debts.

Maclean’s: How much of your fiscal restraint program has to do with money and how much is it an attempt to remake society — I think of steps like doing away with the Human Rights Commission, for one.

Bennett: When we got into the international recession, it seemed like a good time to re-examine what governments should be doing. In that examination we found that, although desirable and well motivated at the time, there had grown up in our society and in our province a sort of belief that agencies not directly

responsible to the government and therefore to the people were somehow more pure than government departments themselves. The fact that they were given powers without having any checks and balances, to me and to my colleagues this seemed to be not democratic. One area of concern is human rights. Our Human Rights Commission was under a lot of attack. Rather than [being] an area to which people could take legitimate complaints and have them heard quickly and inexpensively, [the commission] pursued frivolous

complaints and moved so slowly that in may cases justice was delayed. So we are replacing the Human Rights Commission with a Human Rights Council. Legislation we have introduced actually broadens the definition of human rights to include the disabled for the first time.

Maclean’s: Yours must surely be the first government in Canadian history that renewed its mandate by promising less. Bennett: We won a decisive mandate from the people by saying we will manage your affairs well, we will not waste your money, we will spend less to protect essential services, so that you will not lose control of the amount of disposable income you need. The cost of government in 1950 was 20 per cent of GNP.

Today it is over 50 per cent. That is unacceptable, I believe, to most people. The fact that it is over 50 per cent means that the present economy cannot afford it and government, unable to raise the taxes for some years now, has been using a Chargex card approach. It has been government by Chargex in Ottawa and they’ve doubled the national debt in the past four years.

Maclean’s: In a philosophical sense, what do you see as the real purpose of a government in modem society?

Bennett: The government of course has

a very central role in a modern economy. Obviously people want the standard of health care we have in this country. We should be able to assist those who through no fault of their own are in need of assistance, not on a permanent basis but to try to help people become self-sufficient. The other role of government that probably is one of the best measures of society is how you treat your seniors. But those who, in the name of compassion, continue to spend wildly are not compassionate at all. It is the most selfish thing that I perceive in governments and politicians. In the name of compassion, they will spend the public’s money, even though they know there are very severe problems down the road. The B.C. election proved that

our view is in the mainstream of Canadian opinion. It is acceptable for the more informed political parties to go and say, “Here is the financial position of our country. Unchecked this is what you will face two, three, four years down the road — you will face much less.”

Maclean’s: What about some of the other areas of government intrusion? Are you considering deregulation similar to some of the Reagan initiatives?

Bennett: That is something we started a number of years ago. We are reassess-

ing every aspect of government that has regulations. Rent control, for example, is probably one of the least democratic laws introduced by government. What it does is pick on a minority lumped as unpopular — this could be anyone, whether he is a farmer who sold his farm or someone who has sold his small business and put their savings in a rental accommodation to become landlords. They somehow become enemies of society. Rent controls have created all sorts of social problems, downtown abandonment in the major cities and lack of housing construction. If society wants to help people in their accommodation because of costs, they should deal directly with individual cases. That is my philosophy in removing rent controls.

Maclean’s: In your own case do you consider your election platform to have been your mandate?

Bennett: Yes. Of the three elections I have fought, this was the campaign in which the issues were most clearly understood, where the choices were most clearly marked. It was the best vote we ever got, our strongest mandate. It has to mean something when we go to the polls in our worst economic year and win. And I did not have the luxury of getting in, like in other provinces, where the opposition was Liberal, by running against Trudeau.

Maclean’s: Consciously or not, you are establishing not just a cheaper government but a whole new society on Canada's Pacific coast. Have you thought through the full implications of your program?

Bennett: The only jobs that can drive our prosperity are jobs in the private sector. To create them, we have to do everything we can to encourage business investment and broaden our international markets. And that is the program people clearly supported in the election. No government can spend its way to prosperity. You cannot have one group of people working in the public sector immune from the recessiongovernments must have the ability to lay off people on the same terms and conditions as the private sector. Maclean’s: But the people who may be supporting you are fairly silent, while your opposition is mobilizing the province into a general strike. Do you enjoy being called a fascist?

Bennett: I’ve been around politics all my life, and it’s 10 years since I was first elected. You cannot call me a fascist when in fact I have tried to reduce government intervention. Fascism is totally foreign to my philosophy, to everything I believe in. Despite the shrillness of the opposition, I have never felt more positive support. People come up to me on the street, quietly put their hand on my shoulder, and say: “Stick with it.”