This coming Sunday, Jan. 31, a celebration of the life and times of former Social Credit Premier Bill Bennett is at the Grand Hotel in Kelowna. I’ll be there with hundreds of his former colleagues and friends whose lives were impacted by this one-of-a-kind premier.
Bennett died last December at age 83. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s. His struggle with the terrible illness was not generally known until two years ago when family friend Charles Fipke donated more than $3 million in Bennett’s name to Alzheimer’s research at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, a partnership between the UBC Faculty of Medicine and Vancouver Coastal Health.
Bennett announced his retirement from politics 30 years ago during Expo 86. Many of you will remember that the years preceding Expo were harsh indeed and Bennett’s restraint program, designed to keep B.C. viable through hard economic times, earned the premier very few friends at the time.
In fact, Bennett was basically losing the 1983 provincial election until NDP leader Dave Barrett, campaigning in the West Kootenay as I recall, told reporters he would dismantle the restraint program. Apparently, voters understood that the hardships imposed on them were worth the short-term pain.
Back in those days I had the greatest job in B.C., political reporter for the Vancouver Sun posted to the Legislative Press Gallery. Covering Bennett was a challenge. He had little use for sound bites and photo ops. He was terse, rather than eloquent.
Looking back, I have to chuckle at Bennett’s deft ability to leave the media standing in the rain whenever he could. Caring little for another combative question about the impacts of restraint, the premier discovered he could escape the media by sending his press secretary, Hal Lieren, out to schmooze the press gallery scrum in the driveway outside the West Annex while Bennett made his escape through the Legislature’s labyrinth of basement corridors to join his driver at the “CNIB Stand” at the East Annex.
One afternoon, when I realized what was happening, the premier and I had a foot race through the basement hallways. The only reason I caught him was because the athletic premier had a terrible cold. Back in those days my idea of exercise was a block-long walk to the bar after work.
So, there we were, leaning against the concrete wall wheezing, red-faced and speechless. A great moment for Politics vs the Fourth Estate.
In a tribute to Bennett in 2011, former attorney general Brian Smith said: “Bennett’s personal qualities often were under-appreciated during his time in office. He was not a natural orator and television sold him short.
“As a friend and later as a cabinet colleague, I knew him to be warm and funny and ferociously loyal. He did not dump colleagues who were in trouble. He stuck by them, as his father had done before him.”
Smith recalled that Bennett could also crack the whip when his ministers drifted. “When the cabinet seemed captivated by a large new spending initiative, the premier called for a cabinet vote. Everyone voted for the scheme. Bennett said: ‘Ayes – 21 and Nays – 1. I see the nays have it.’ We all laughed for a long time and the program died.”
In 2007, Bennet received the Order of B.C. He was praised for leading our province through a challenging economic time and left office with the province poised for success in a modern, global economy. Bennett’s legacy has stood the test of time. He is remembered as a builder and an optimist who always had an upbeat vision for British Columbia.
The family says that donations in Bennett’s memory can be made to the Alzheimer’s Society, Suite 307-1664 Richter St., Kelowna, V1Y 8N3.