The egged premier who scrambled, and won

Bill Bennett’s worst birthday. Latest in our snapshots of BC political history.
By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: This is the thirteenth in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

Unknown“I should let the assholes have the province,’ the premier said, checking his forehead for blood. “I don’t need this. I just don’t need this.’

Bill Bennett had just smashed his head on the overhead luggage compartment of his campaign airplane. It was the end of a long and lousy day in what looked to be a long and lousy election campaign.

The early days of the 1983 campaign were a shambles for Bennett and his Social Credit party. And on April 14, the day Bennett turned 51, things hit bottom.

Protesters in Terrace threw eggs at Bennett and his wife, Audrey. During a speech in Smithers, a First Nations heckler disrupted the premier’s speech until Bennett pulled a $20 bill from his wallet and waved it at the man, telling him to take the money and go back to the bar he’d come from.

Bob Plecas, the senior Bennett official who describes the day in Bill Bennett: A Mandarin’s View, calls it the worst birthday in Bennett’s life. It’s hard to argue with that assessment.

Bennett had looked unwell from the start of the ’83 campaign. In the middle of a speech his face would glow with the mottled shades of a ripe plum and his sentences would become slurred and barely coherent.

Meanwhile, New Democratic Party leader Dave Barrett was having a whale of a time, joyfully parrying Socred attacks while pounding Bennett for B.C.’s flailing economy.

A few days after the Smithers incident, Bennett’s handlers pulled him off the road, saying he was sick and needed a rest. When the premier returned to the hustings it was on a reduced and tightly controlled schedule that avoided contact with the media as much as possible.

The message underlying the Socred campaign was a response to the recession and to voters’ dislike for Bennett. Tough times require a tough guy, the Socred message implied, and Bill Bennett was one tough guy.

According to the standard narrative, Barrett was cruising to victory when he announced in the final days of the campaign that an NDP government would dump Bennett’s restraint program, which put a ceiling on civil service wage increases. Barrett himself credits that moment — and a live response by Bennett on the BCTV News Hour — with his loss.

In fact, as Plecas points out, Social Credit’s internal polls indicated that Bennett had turned things around and was leading before Barrett’s gaffe. In any event, the tough guy pulled off a remarkable feat, winning re-election with 50 per cent of the vote and an increased seat majority in the face of the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

After the election, Bennett would give British Columbians some real restraint, bringing in a sweeping set of Reagan-and-Thatcher inspired reforms that provoked chaos and threats of a general strike. The 1983 campaign would be Bennett’s last; in 1986 the tough guy was replaced by the beaming Bill Vander Zalm.

Out of office, Bennett wasn’t out of the news. In Jan. 1989, he was charged in an alleged insider trading scheme, along with his brother, Russell, and forest tycoon Herb Doman. The three were acquitted in court, but a B.C. Securities Commission panel found all three guilty of securities violations in 1996, suspending them from the market for 10 years.

The news wasn’t all bad for Bennett, though. In 2005, the Liberal government named a new bridge across Okanagan Lake after him. In 2007, he became a member of the Order of British Columbia. And, Plecas relates, one day a First Nations man from Smithers showed up in Bennett’s Kelowna office to apologize and return the $20.

Bennett, Plecas writes, “was so surprised and touched that he forgot to ask for the interest.”

Find Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor Tom Barrett’s previous Tyee articles here. Find him on Twitter or email him.

The ‘Honest Bob’ who was jailed for bribery

By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: This is the eleventh in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

Every jurisdiction has its crooked politicians, but British Columbia was the first in the Commonwealth to send a cabinet minister to jail for crimes committed while in office.

Robert (Honest Bob) Sommers, a former school principal from Castlegar, was W.A.C. Bennett’s minister of lands, forests and mines in the 1950s. W.A.C. biographer David Mitchell writes that before being handed the job, Sommers told Bennett that he had once been a bit of a drinker and gambler and had gone through a “difficult period.”

Those bad days were in the past, Sommers assured the teetotalling premier.

Within a few years of assuming the portfolio, however, Sommers began to have money troubles. Rumours began to circulate that the minister was open to bribes. A private investigator told Bennett there was nothing to the stories, but people continued to talk.

In Feb. 1955, Liberal MLA Gordon (Bull of the Woods) Gibson rose in the legislature. Gibson, a booming orator who had made millions in the logging business, told the house that something in the B.C. forest tenure system reeked.

“I firmly believe that money talks and that money has talked in this,” Gibson declared, demanding an investigation. At these words, Mitchell writes, “there was pandemonium, with members from all sides yelling at one another until the Speaker called for adjournment.”

When the charges hit the next day’s press, Gibson declared that “the Socreds were caught where the hair is short” by the outcry. When the house sat next, Gibson was thrown from the chamber for refusing to withdraw his allegations. He marched up to the public gallery. When an MLA sought to have him removed, Gibson roared: “I’m either a member on the floor of this house or a private citizen up here in the gallery.”

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The first MLA physically thrown from the legislature

Who was it? And why doesn’t this happen more often? ‘Some Honourable Members’ gets rowdy.
By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: This is the ninth in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

Dave Barrett
Dave Barrett

One of B.C.’s more peculiar democratic traditions goes by the name of legislation by exhaustion.

From time to time, as opposition MLAs have became too disputatious, governments held all-night sittings, forcing their opponents to talk around the clock. As the sittings ground on, even the most forceful filibuster would eventually run out of gas, allowing the government’s agenda to limp into law.

Those all-night sittings produced some memorable confrontations between sleep-deprived members, who were often braced by the odd snort from a bottle of bottom-drawer scotch.

Although no booze was involved, one of the lowest moments came in October 1983, during debate on then-premier Bill Bennett’s restraint package. The package, a series of bills that slashed the civil service, suppressed union rights, cut social services, repealed human rights legislation and centralized power in Victoria, set off a backlash led by the B.C. labour movement.

When the New Democratic Party Opposition roused itself to fight the bills, Bennett opted for legislation by exhaustion. At around 4 a.m. on Oct. 6, with backbench MLA John Parks in the Speaker’s chair, the NDP moved for the house to adjourn. Parks refused the motion and soon found himself in a convoluted procedural exchange with Opposition leader Dave Barrett:

Parks: Would you be kind enough to take your place?
Barrett: No, because I’m asking you: is that a ruling?
Parks: Did you rise on a point of order?
Barrett: Yes, I’m on a point of order. Is that a ruling?
Parks: Have you made the point of order?
Barrett: Yes, I’m asking if you’re ruling that you have the right to rule without a ruling.
Parks: Having made the point of order, I’d advise that you take your seat.
Barrett: No, I want a ruling.

And so on.

Eventually, Parks ordered Barrett to leave the chamber. Barrett refused. Parks called on the sergeant-at-arms’s staff, a group of older gentlemen whose main tasks involved filling water glasses and carrying messages.

On Parks’s orders, three of the sergeant’s men grabbed Barrett’s chair and tried to lift it. The chair toppled and Barrett fell to floor. The three then dragged Barrett, his arms crossed, out of the house and dumped him on the floor of the hallway outside.

It was a historic moment, the first time an MLA had been thrown bodily from the B.C. legislature.

But no footage exists of the incident. Cameras were banned from the legislative chamber in those days. Outside the chamber, at least one TV cameraman was in position to film Barrett being given the bum’s rush. But as Barrett was being dumped on the red carpet of the corridor, Speaker Walter Davidson stood by, threatening to yank the credentials of anyone filming the scene.

Nor is there an official written record of the great heave-ho. Hansard records Parks’s instruction to the sergeant’s men, followed by one parenthetical word: “[Interruption.]”

Find Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor Tom Barrett’s previous Tyee articles here. Find him on Twitter, or email him.

The labour minister whose Visa card was X-rated

Socred Bob McClelland paid the price. Our series of dubious BC political moments continues.
By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

By Nikodem Nijaki via Wikimedia Commons
By Nikodem Nijaki via Wikimedia Commons

Late on the night of Feb. 26, 1985, B.C. labour minister Bob McClelland phoned a Victoria business known as Top Hat Productions. He’d had a fair bit to drink.

McClelland asked the woman who answered the phone if a girl could be sent to his room at the Chateau Victoria hotel. He asked how much he would have to pay for her company — about $100 an hour, as it turned out — and whether Top Hat took Visa.

We know these tawdry details because the Victoria police were watching Top Hat, one of about half a dozen escort agencies listed at the time in the Victoria Yellow Pages.

On Nov. 27, 1987, McClelland was called by the defence to testify in the trial of Top Hat’s operator, Arlie Blakely, who faced 19 counts of prostitution-related offences.

A Canadian Press account of McClelland’s court appearance describes him as “glum-faced,” entering the court by himself and refusing to look at the “nearly full” public gallery. He testified that a Visa receipt from Top Hat for $130 was indeed his.

A demand from Blakely’s lawyer, Robert Moore-Stewart, for “the story behind” the receipt was ruled out of order. McClelland told Moore-Stewart he did not tell the Top Hat receptionist what he intended to do with the girl.

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The BC mega-project that dwarfed all others

Wacky Bennett’s monorailmania. Latest in our look-back series ‘Some Honourable Members’.
By Tom Barrett

This is the fifth in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

Axel Wenner-Gren. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Axel Wenner-Gren. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Even in an era defined by grand schemes and rip-roaring resource exploitation, the dreams of Swedish vacuum cleaner tycoon Axel Wenner-Gren stood out.

The international financier, who produced among other things the Electrolux vacuum cleaner, sold W.A.C. Bennett’s government on a massive plan to develop a 10-million hectare swath of B.C., through the Rocky Mountain Trench from the Yukon border to Prince George. It would feature mines, pulp mills and hydro dams, tied together with a 290 kilometre per hour monorail that would cost a billion dollars. (That’s more than $8 billion in today’s money.)

The plan caught the attention of Life magazine, which wrote  in 1957 that “the land that Wenner-Gren would develop, now locally known as Wenner-Grenland, is an area of awesome beauty, of brilliantly coloured lakes, set in primeval forests of poplar and pine. The backed-up waters of the Peace River which runs from west to east would form the largest man-made reservoir in the world, 260 miles long and taking up to seven years to fill.”

The wilderness area — “almost the size of Ohio” — would be populated with “a string of 10 to 15 towns”; work on the dam would start in two years, the magazine reported.

Bennett and Wenner-Gren signed a deal that reserved the lands for the Swede’s company. Critics called it a giveaway; they were even more upset when they discovered that Einar Gunderson, a crony of Bennett’s and a former finance minister, was a director of the Wenner-Gren B.C. Development Co.

‘You will rue the day’

Opposition member Ran Harding called it “the biggest blunder ever committed by any government in B.C.’s history.” Harding warned Bennett: “You will rue the day you ever heard the name Wenner-Gren. The project will be the ruination of the Social Credit government.”

Wenner-Gren eventually lost enthusiasm for the potential of Wenner-Grenland and the monorail was never built. But Bennett’s government would dam the Peace as part of its “two rivers policy” that also saw development of the Columbia River’s power potential.

The Peace River power project is one of the biggest mega-projects in the history of B.C. It’s a measure of the times that the final outcome of Wenner-Gren’s vision pales in comparison to the original fantasy.

Find Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor Tom Barrett’s previous Tyee articles here.  Find him on Twitter or email him.

The BC premier who loved the universe

When he wasn’t drunkenly clubbing foes. Third in our series ‘Some Honourable Members.’
By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: Here’s part three of “Some Honourable Members,” a Tyee series of vignettes depicting some of the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political past, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

Amor De Cosmos
Amor De Cosmos

California in the mid-19th century provided endless opportunities for men looking to reinvent themselves and William Alexander Smith, a 28-year-old photographer and entrepreneur from the town of El Dorado (formerly Mud Springs) was a man with a thirst for self-reinvention.

So it was that Smith appeared before the California legislature on Feb. 17, 1854, with a petition to change his name to Amor De Cosmos. The name, he explained to the hooting frontier solons, summed up what he loved the most: “Order, beauty, the world, the universe.”

Four years later, the Nova Scotia-born De Cosmos — the name means “lover of the universe” — arrived in Victoria, another frontier town that allowed plenty of room for fresh starts. He would go on to make lasting contributions to journalism and politics in British Columbia and Canada, while helping to give the West Coast a reputation as a place where public life is always a little askew.

De Cosmos founded the British Colonist newspaper, which biographer George Woodcock describes as B.C.’s first politically independent journal. That journal lives today in the roots of the hyphenated Victoria Times-Colonist. The lover of the universe was also an MLA, an MP, the second premier of the province and a driving force behind B.C.’s entry into Confederation.

And, yes, he was also a bit strange.

“His methods were flamboyant but arresting,” Woodcock writes in British Columbia: A History of the Province. “He was often drunk when he spoke, and frequently he became involved in fights with opponents on whose heads he would freely use the heavy walking stick he carried.”

He rambled about Victoria in frock coat and top hat, a familiar and disputatious figure. Library and Archives Canada’s biography of De Cosmos puts it this way: “Always an eccentric individual, De Cosmos’s unconventional behaviour increased in his later years. He was reported to be afraid of electricity, refusing to have it in his house or even to ride on electric streetcars. A heavy drinker, he was given to making emotional speeches and, from time to time, street brawling.”

As he grew older, his eccentricities grew into paranoia and, eventually, insanity.

“He would stalk the streets of Victoria, hawk-like and haggard, staring into the faces of people as if he were seeking to revive some lost memory,” Woodcock writes.

He was declared of unsound mind in 1895 and died two years later, aged 71. Few turned out for his funeral, but today his unusual name symbolizes British Columbians’ appetite for the grandiose and off-kilter in public life.

Find Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor Tom Barrett’s previous Tyee articles here. Find him on Twitter or email him.

BC’s coming election: Myth of the demon vote splitter

Libs and NDP sow fear of third parties siphoning votes. But political life is complicated.
By Tom Barrett

When push comes to shove, do third parties 'steal' votes from larger parties more ready to govern? Image: Shutterstock.
When push comes to shove, do third parties ‘steal’ votes from larger parties more ready to govern? Image: Shutterstock.

We’re going to hear a lot about third parties and vote-splitting as we approach the May 14 election. That’s because everybody who knows anything about B.C. elections knows one big thing.

As a Young Liberal delegate said during last fall’s annual party convention: “The only time the NDP wins is when the free enterprise vote is fractured.”

The Liberals and Social Credit before them have been saying the same thing for more than half a century. When Martyn Brown was campaign director for the BC Liberals in the 2001, 2005 and 2009 elections, he worked that line like a government mule.

“It is a powerful argument, no doubt,” he has written, “one that I helped elevate to an art form in my long time in B.C. politics. It certainly helped elect Gordon Campbell’s three successive majority governments.”

There are, however, a couple of problems with the argument. For a start, as Brown now concedes, it misses the point by ignoring why people vote for third parties. It’s based on an outdated Cold War mentality. It also ignores how voters shift allegiance in elections. And it oversimplifies history.

As political scientist Norman Ruff wrote after the 1996 election — one of the key events in free enterprise vote-splitting mythology — “there has never been a monolithic free enterprise vote in British Columbia.”

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