B.C.’s Bill Bennett still alive and kickin’

Bill Bennett was Part 2 of the Bennett Social Credit dynasty that governed British Columbia for a total of 30 years.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on ex-B.C. premiers: Where are they now?

Bill Bennett was Part 2 of the Bennett Social Credit dynasty that governed British Columbia for a total of 30 years.

His father, W.A.C. Bennett, became premier in 1952 and won seven elections, holding power until 1972. He ditched the monetary reform ideas of the Alberta party of the same name and turned B.C. Social Credit into a political vehicle guided by conservatism and populism. He became known by both friend and foe as “Wacky” Bennett. Keeping the CCF/NDP out of power was an overriding goal.

The first Bennett’s ambitious programs of infrastructure projects and road-building laid the groundwork for the modern province of B.C. For Bennett, province-building trumped ideology. For example, the ferries in B.C. were owned and operated by a private American company when he took power. He bought the boats and established B.C. Ferries.

W.A.C. was finally defeated by the NDP in 1972 and his son Bill soon became Social Credit leader, winning power in 1975. Bennett wasn’t a man of the people like his father had been, but he quickly developed a reputation for right-wing politics and competent government.

Some think of his rule as a golden era of solid government, especially given some of the scandal-plagued administrations that have ruled B.C. since. His achievements included bringing Expo 86 to Vancouver, developing Whistler and building the Coquihalla Hwy.

But his legacy, too, is marked by B.C.’s political polarization.

His restraint program slashed social services and toughened labour laws, pitting Bennett against the teachers and much of the public sector. He stepped down in 1986 and was replaced by Bill Vander Zalm.

Bennett is now 76 and lives in Kelowna, where he keeps a low profile and clearly doesn’t miss the cut and thrust of political life. Two years ago, he was awarded the Order of B.C. He told a Kelowna reporter before travelling to the provincial capital to receive the honour that he hadn’t been back to Victoria since he left office more than 20 years ago.

Last year, a new bridge across Okanagan Lake was christened the William R. Bennett Bridge.

At the opening ceremonies, Bennett and current Premier Gordon Campbell snipped the ribbon using the same pair of scissors that W.A.C. had used in 1958 to open the first bridge.

And he hasn’t completely turned his back on politics — rumour has it he’s advising the current premier, who with his May 12 election win has duplicated the three straight election victories won by Bill Bennett.

Bennett also landed in the public eye in 1996, when he was convicted of insider trading and handed a 10-year stock trading ban.

Friend Herb Doman, a lumber baron, alerted Bennett and his brother Russell that a takeover of his company had fallen through and the Bennetts unloaded all their shares, worth $5.9 million.

Minutes later, trading halted. When it resumed, the share price plunged.

James Kwantes is a former Advocate editor. He can be reached at gone-coastal@hotmail.com

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