Bill Bennett: A Man Ahead of His Time

To be honest, I get all the Bennetts mixed up because there are a lot of them. Click here to learn more about this man or read an excerpt below.

 

For good or ill, BC’s 27th premier shaped this province as much as his father did.

Bill Bennett

Time often gives us a new perspective on our old political friends and enemies. W.A.C. Bennett, Bill’s father, seemed like a blowhard and mountebank in the 1960s, when he was beginning to wear out his welcome. The 50-year school wars began on his watch when he slowly and grudgingly built schools to handle the baby boomers, and appropriated teachers’ pension funds to finance his megaprojects.

Wacky Bennett had prospered as a Kelowna hardware merchant, but he was no free-market fanatic. In his day, the public schools might be overcrowded, or even running on shifts. But if you didn’t like them and put your kids in a private school, you could pay the whole shot for their education. Taxes were for serving taxpayers, period.

He was also, by several years, ahead of the neoliberal transformation created in the late 1970s and early ’80s by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In more ways than one, Bill Bennett was a regression to the mean: not as visionary as his father, and a lot nastier.

He did a lot to earn that reputation. He didn’t repeal the NDP-created Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, but he jacked up insurance rates, and doubled BC Ferries fares. He engineered a major defection from the provincial Liberal caucus, including Pat McGeer — who said that if people couldn’t afford ICBC’s new rates, they should stop driving.

In 1977 Bennett also passed the Independent School Act, which used taxpayers’ dollars to subsidize private schools (now called “independent” schools) — widely seen as a blatant bribe to those who’d vote for him anyway, and which is now fixed in stone.

Starve the starving

By the early 1980s, B.C.’s Liberals were a ghost party and the NDP wasn’t much stronger. Runaway inflation and an American recession had spilled into Canada, and as a new school trustee in North Vancouver I was trying to find a deal with our teachers at a modest 15 per cent salary increase — while also trying to deal with a 20 per cent interest rate on my own mortgage.

Again ahead of his time, Bill Bennett responded to the recession the way the European Union responded to the 2008 economic collapse: by cutting funds and services to the people who needed them the most. The 1982 restraint program, among other things, gutted school boards’ revenue sources by making their commercial-industrial taxes part of the province’s share of school funding. Ever since, boards have had power only to decide which programs to cut when Victoria imposes its will (and its budgets) on them.

With an election looming, and armed with my first computer, I wrote a book, School Wars, which I naively thought would further enrage the public by exposing the harm Bennett had done to public education. It was great fun (my teaching colleague Stan Persky typeset it in those days before desktop publishing), and it sold a few copies.

Trapped in BC Place

But one day in 1986 I was at an education conference held in the very new BC Place Stadium. (Bennett’s biographer Allen Garr used to describe it as “a marshmallow in bondage.”) As I listened to David Suzuki earnestly addressing his audience, the media guy from the B.C. School Trustees Association murmured in my ear: “Bill Bennett has just resigned.”

For good or ill, Bill Bennett shaped this province as much as his father did, or more, and we are still struggling to find a way out to something better.

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