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

UPDATE: Several fires burning in Lower Similkameen

At least one fire near Keremeos was caused by lightening

911 jams causes panic among residents

RDOS chair received several calls and texts from panicked residents unable to get through to 911

Update: Lightning sparks blaze above Summerland

Firefighters are battling the small fire from the area that occurred Tuesday shortly after 7 p.m.

Lightning strikes across B.C. Interior

Residents are being asked to go inside until last rumble of thunder

Firefighters respond to roadside brush fire

Fire next to Highway 97 being brought under control.

Trudeau asks transport minister to tackle Greyhound’s western pullout

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s asked Transport Minister Marc Garneau to find solutions in Greyhound Canada’s absence.

Lightning strikes West Kelowna condo

Fire crews were called to a building on Carrington Road Tuesday night

Lightning sparks wildfires in Vernon

Tuesday night storm causes wildfire in BX and residential fire in East Hill

Crash closes Highway 5A in both directions

A collision has shut down Highway 5A about 22 kilometres south of the junction with Highway 97C

UPDATE: Smoke rising from Okanagan Mountain Park hills

Lightning may have sparked a fire in the hills across from Peachland

UPDATE: Crews battle wildfire near Big White

Joe Rich Fire Department responding alongside Big White Fire Department and provincial crews.

Hub for mental health and addictions treatment opens at B.C. hospital

St. Paul’s Hospital HUB is an acute medical unit that includes 10 patient beds

Pike Mountain fire continues to grow – quadruples in 24 hours

Fire threatens area consumed in 2017 by a 3,500 hectare blaze

Vernon Knights hire Van Horlick

New head coach of Junior B franchise in Armstrong

Most Read