Former premier Bill Bennett strolls through Quail's Gate vineyard in West Kelowna in a campaign appearance with Gordon Campbell in 2009.

BC VIEWS: Passages of 2015 – Bill Bennett

Former premier took on out-of-control government growth, chokehold of international unions on public construction

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.

I was in journalism school in Vancouver when unions organized a general strike and mass street demonstrations under the banner of Operation Solidarity, appropriated from the struggle against Poland’s communist dictators. Their goal was to bring the recently re-elected government to its knees.

The newly tabloid Vancouver Province, itself largely controlled by some of B.C.’s most militant unions, was a screeching banshee of the big-labour left.

“Socred hitmen swoop on rights workers,” its front page declared after 400 layoff notices were issued to provincial staff. This propaganda was the public’s guide and my professional role model.

A bit of background: the B.C. economy was in the grip of an international recession, hitting resource industries and government revenues hard.

Bennett had ousted the Dave Barrett NDP government in 1975, but the legacy lived on. During its three-year reign, for example, education spending increased 13 per cent in the first year and 23 per cent in each of the next two.

The blitz of restraint legislation reasserted government’s authority to control the size and wages of provincial staff, reinstated the principle of 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.

A couple of friends discovered the inside track to securing labouring jobs on a provincially-funded highway project. After joining the union, those in the know could visit a business agent and hand over $500 cash. Within days, the lucky winner would be “name requested” to join the crew, vaulting over those who thought paying dues and working their way up the seniority list would be enough.

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 drove it home from Victoria and continued to drive it to work.

No frills. That was Bill Bennett.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

 

Just Posted

Sooke council green lights funds for sculpture

A local group is chipping away at raising funds to build a… Continue reading

Get ready for the 39th annual Goodlife Fitness Victoria Marathon

Up to 9,000 particpants are anticipated for this year’s three-day race weekend

Impaired driver crashes into Victoria police vehicle, injures officer

Cook Street collision occured in the early morning hours of Tuesday

SOOKE HISTORY: Fishing evolves at foot of Maple Ave.

Fishboat activity at the foot of Maple Avenue has varied greatly over… Continue reading

Plaque that replaced Macdonald statue at Victoria city hall vandalized

Less than 24 hours after plaque was installed, an ‘X’ had been scratched through the centre

Average Canadian family spends 43% of income on taxes: study

Fraser Institute’s consumer report shows taxes accounting for larger chunk of income each year

RCMP to search for body after man drowns in B.C.’s Buntzen Lake

Officers and fire crews responded but the man from the Lower Mainland is believed to have drowned.

Police chiefs call for stricter controls on pill presses to fight opioids

Canada’s police chiefs are urging Ottawa to beef up its fight against the opioid scourge by closely vetting people who import pill presses

Victoria police say explicit calls continue to target women

Over 50 reports of unwanted, sexually explicit calls have come in

‘It’s like a party in your mouth’

B.C. creator’s Milkshake Burger makes its debut at the PNE

Vehicle catches fire near Vancouver Island provincial park

Fire shut down Highway 4 in both directions

Get involved in the Great Canadian Bumble Bee Count

Environmental organization develops app to help with the nationwide count

Most Read