Tribute: Bill Bennett
A labour reporter looks back on an oddball friendship with a right-wing leader, and the good old days when labour reporters still existed
By Rod Mickleburgh
VANCOUVER — For some reason, Bill Bennett seemed to like me. In the few times we encountered each other, we got along. Goodness knows why, since, as a labour reporter, I had little time for the wealth of anti-labour legislation that came down the legislative pipe during Bennett’s 11 years as premier of British Columbia, topped by his outlandish, 26-bill “restraint” package in 1983. It went far beyond “austerity”. One of the bills gave his government the right to fire public sector workers without cause and lay them off without regard to seniority. Among the first to be shown the door was BC Government Employees Union vice-president Diane Woods. Nor was that all.
On that single unforgettable day, the government also wiped out the Human Rights Commission (employees fired on the spot), gave landlords the right to evict tenants without cause, abolished rent controls, severely curtailed employment standards, tightened government control over school boards, community colleges and course content, weakened public scrutiny of Crown corporations, slashed social spending, and announced the layoffs of hundreds of government employees. It was a neo-con revolution of the right, hailed by the Fraser Institute and the Milton Friedman folks in Chicago. “Black Thursday” led to the most concerted protest fightback in the history of B.C., bringing the province to the verge of an all-out general strike. Er…where was I…? Oh yes, Bill Bennett and me.
As I said, all my dealings with Bennett the Younger were cordial, even friendly. I particularly remember one strange Friday night in the good old days when there were labour reporters. I was working the night labour beat at the Vancouver Sun, looking forward to a drink later on at the Press Club across the street. Out of nowhere, the “labour desk” got a call from one of Bennett’s aides, saying the Premier would like to have dinner with me. But of course. Why wouldn’t he? So out I headed on that dark and stormy night to a Japanese restaurant in deepest Richmond.
And there he was, leader of all the people, dining out with a few of his cronies. It was such a simpler time. Turned out the Premier wanted to talk to me about what he intended to do to ensure there would be no repeat of a bitter ferries strike that had just convulsed the province. His plan involved curbing the powers of the quite wonderful Labour Relations Board established under the NDP, and broadening the definition of essential services.
I particularly remember one strange Friday night in the good old days when there were labour reporters. I was working the night labour beat at the Vancouver Sun, looking forward to a drink later on at the Press Club across the street. Out of nowhere, the “labour desk” got a call from one of Bennett’s aides, saying the Premier would like to have dinner with me. But of course. Why wouldn’t he? So out I headed on that dark and stormy night to a Japanese restaurant in deepest Richmond.
We had a pleasant conversation. I drank green tea and took notes. Bennett didn’t seem to mind my defense of the LRB and its brilliant chairman, Paul Weiler. Nor did he seem perturbed when I pointed to a strike-ending document authored by Mr. Weiler that, among other things, ruled out another aspect of Bennett’s agenda: potential prosecution of ferry workers for defying a back-to-work order.
It was actually kind of odd, as I realized little old labour reporter me knew more about the ins and outs of the ferry dispute than the premier of the province. But never mind. When I got back to the office, I had a big scoop that was splashed all over the front page of the Saturday Sun.
Nor was that the end of this gripping, personal saga. A few days later, Bill Bennett had to stand up in the legislature and acknowledge that he may have misled the House, after an article by that same little old labour reporter me contradicted something he had said. It’s all a bit complicated and picayune, but here is my shiny Bill Bennett moment.
First, Hansard from Oct 19, 1977:
MRS. E.E. DAILLY (Burnaby North): To the Premier. Was the Premier aware of the Weiler document the evening before he went on public television?
HON. MR. BENNETT: No.
COCKE: Rod Mickleburgh says he showed it to you the night before and you talked to him about it the night before.
DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order, please.
And then, on Oct. 20:
HON. W.R. BENNETT (Premier): Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of clarification…to clarify an answer made in question period yesterday.
DEPUTY SPEAKER: Please proceed.
HON. MR. BENNETT: Mr. Speaker, I must say that in answer to a question from the member for Burnaby North (Mrs. Dailly) yesterday, in the shortness of my answer I may have inadvertently misled the House. The question was: was I aware of the LRB document? The answer would have to be yes, but I had not read the contents. That was the way I had understood the question. But I would point out that I did attend in dinner with Mr. Mickleburgh, who was there to receive a statement in advance of my press conference the following morning, and he has suggested that he mentioned the document during the dinner. While I cannot recall the contents of what he said, it must be said that I was aware that the Labour Relations Board did have a document. For that the answer would be “yes.” Had I read it and did I know the contents? The answer would be “no” at that time.
For the only time in my mediocre career, the score stood: Mickleburgh 1 Premier of British Columbia 0.
We encountered each other a few times after that, all private, all rather enjoyable. He never mentioned my calling him to account. Unlike many other politicians, Bill Bennett, frequently a target of intense media criticism, never held a grudge against reporters. Former Province legislative columnist Allen Garr, who wrote a hard-hitting book on Bennett called Tough Guy and was never easy on him in his columns, said he ran into the former premier a few years ago and was greeted with a genial ‘hello”, warm handshake and heartfelt pleasantries. Mind you, Bill Bennett shook hands with anybody….
As some have mentioned, Bennett was also known for his wit, though it was almost always at the expense of others and often somewhat mean. He once referred to NDP transportation critic James Lorimer, who favoured light rail over Skytrain, as “a streetcar named retire”. During a controversy that had erupted over vacant space in government office buildings under the Barrett government, he ended a corridor confrontation with Public Works Minister Bill Hartley, by saying the minister should have a sign on his forehead proclaiming “This Space for Rent”. I have other examples in the same vein, including a particularly good zinger on Bill Vander Zalm, whom he loathed, but you get the picture. Given that the NDP used to taunt him as “Daddy’s Boy”, perhaps he can be forgiven if they seem a bit harsh. (Bob Williams was the most persistent of the “Daddy’s Boy” taunters, until Bennett shot back, unfortunately: “At least I have a father…”)
Former Province legislative columnist Allen Garr, who wrote a hard-hitting book on Bennett called Tough Guy and was never easy on him in his columns, said he ran into the former premier a few years ago and was greeted with a genial ‘hello”, warm handshake and heartfelt pleasantries. Mind you, Bill Bennett shook hands with anybody….
Bennett really was a “tough guy” of the back alley variety. He gave no quarter. He played to win. Not an instinctive politician, he had an unerring sense for weakness. When union leader Jack Munro came to his house in Kelowna that infamous Sunday night in November, 1983, with an escalation of labour’s general strike on the table, Bennett quickly realized the unions wanted out of it more than he did. He could get a deal by offering almost nothing. Essentially, Bennett called their bluff, and the unions folded like a sack of potatoes. (Often forgotten is that Bennett did budge on the trade union issues that launched the whole Solidarity movement, but that happened before the ill-fated, so-called “Kelowna Accord”. One of the anti-union bills was dropped and the other never seriously applied. The layoffs proceeded, but they did so according to seniority, under employees’ union contracts. Diane Woods got her job back.)
Even his family’s paid obituary in the newspaper referred to Bill Bennett’s competitive fire, which hardly diminished as he grew older. At 68, nearly 14 years after he resigned and slipped back to a secluded, private life in Kelowna, Bennett was summoned to testify at the inquiry into the legendary Bingogate scandal. The inquiry was called to look into the illegal redirection of charity bingo funds by NDP stalwart and former cabinet minister, Dave Stupich.
Asked about a mysterious memo that suggested Bennett somehow called off an investigation into Stupich’s charity bingos, the former premier denied even knowing about the matter. “Quite frankly, rest assured I never went out of my way to save Dave Stupich from himself,” he asserted, much to the merriment of those attending.
Later in his testimony, the great “Scotch and cornflakes” saga came up. Stupich had intimated in a letter to his constituents that Bennett was a heavy drinker, known to pour a bit of Scotch on his morning cornflakes. When Stupich refused to retract, Bennett sued. Stupich, along with his cohort, former Attorney-General Alex Macdonald, thought there was great political sport to be made, and fought the matter in court. Bennett, of course, didn’t fool around. He hired the best libel lawyer in the province, and was awarded $10,000, a hefty sum in those days. “Mr. Stupich didn’t plead truth. He tried to play political. I can only suggest he either got poor legal advice, or no legal advice,” the 68-year old Bennett told the inquiry.
He paused, then added, evoking more loud laughter: “For the record, his lawyer was Alex Macdonald.”
Old habits died hard.
THE EX-PRESS, December 13, 2015