Passages of 2015: Bill Bennett

BC Views by Tom Fletcher

The death of former B.C. premier Bill Bennett on Dec. 4 prompted the traditional round of polite tributes.

He was the man from Kelowna who remade Vancouver, with SkyTrain, BC Place stadium and Expo 86 to put the city on the world map. He won three majority governments before handing over the steering wheel of a smoothly running Social Credit Party to Bill Vander Zalm.

Outside B.C., the wire service obituaries ran to a few paragraphs, defining Bennett first as the “architect of financial restraint in the province.”

It seems an ordinary notion today, but when Bennett unleashed his “restraint program” on the B.C. government in 1983, it was presented as a right-wing coup on a socialist utopia. The blitz of restraint legislation reasserted government’s authority to control the size and wages of provincial staff, reinstated the province’s ability to pay, eliminated various boards, and increased the provincial sales tax to seven per cent to pay the bills.

Another Bill Bennett legacy was dismantling the monopoly chokehold of big international unions on public heavy construction.

Growing up in northeastern B.C., I had seen the impressive pay for jobs on highway construction, about twice what I earned labouring for a non-union contractor doing city work.

This struggle over public construction continues today, with BC Hydro’s decision to make the Site C dam an open shop. The main contract was awarded to a consortium working with the Christian Labour Association of Canada, an alternative union known by more colourful names among old-line building trades.

After graduating from journalism school, I landed my first full-time job as a reporter for the Kelowna Capital News, shortly before Bennett announced his retirement from the premier’s office to finish his term as a backbench MLA.

Bennett and I would sometimes arrive for work together, parking our rusty 1976 Chevrolets on Bernard Avenue, where he kept an office above the family furniture store.

I found out later that Bennett’s modest old sedan was the government-issue car he had used during his entire 10 years as premier.

The party bought it for him as a humourous retirement gift, and he continued to drive it to work. No frills. That was Bill Bennett.

tfletcher@blackpress.ca