Barry Coulter and Trevor Crawley
The end of a political era in British Columbia and the East Kootenay was announced Tuesday, June 21, with MLA Bill Bennett telling an audience of almost 300 he would not be running in the next provincial election.
Bennett, along with the B.C. government ministers and Premier Christy Clark, are in Cranbrook for a cabinet retreat this week. Bennett, 66, used the occasion to make his pending retirement public and to rally the Liberal faithful at a gala event at the Royal Alexandra Hall.
With his wife Beth, two sons, daughter-in-law and grandchild in attendance, Bennett said it was time to focus on his family after 16 years and four electoral terms in provincial politics.
“My wife has put up with this for 16 years,” Bennett told the Townsman after his address. “My son Daniel was in Grade 10 when I first got elected—he’s 31 now. How many fishing trips did I miss? My oldest son is back in the area now from South America. I’ve got a granddaughter.
“It’s just more important for me to do that, for myself and for my family, than it is to be an MLA and a minister.”
Bennett won his first election in 2001, defeating NDP incumbent Erda Walsh.
“Anyone could have won in 2001,” Bennett said. “I was just fortunate to be the candidate.
“2005 was a different story — we almost lost. In 2009 we came back stronger. In 2013 we had the third largest margin of victory in British Columbia.”
Bennett then urged the room of B.C. Liberal supporters to keep that momentum going.
“We have a challenge ahead of us. Whoever gets the election, I’m going to help in the election.
“We’ll have a good competition, and the best candidate will win. No one is going to be appointed.”
Over the 16 years, Bennett has acquired a reputation — among his supporters and detractors alike — for getting things done, saying what he thinks, and taking the initiative. Over what can be described as a colourful and high profile political arc, he has risen from a small-town politician in the boondocks of the B.C. Interior to become one of the central figures of provincial government.
He is acknowledged to have raised the profile of his riding in the province, and getting things done for his constituents of all stripes. There certainly has been controversy in his time, and serious setbacks to his career. But each time he has come back seemingly stronger. Bennett resigned from his first cabinet post in 2007 — Minister of State for Mining — after a nasty email he wrote to a constituent was made public. He was re-appointed to cabinet in 2008, as B.C.’s Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, going on to be re-elected in 2009, he was appointed as B.C.’s Minister of Community & Rural Development.
In 2010, Bennett was appointed as B.C.’s Minister of Energy where he served until November 17, 2010, when in one of the signal moments of his career, he took a stand against Premier Gordon Campbell staying on as premier following the HST debacle.
“It was a lot of pressure on everybody at the time,” Bennett said on Tuesday. “I was quite convinced…I have a pretty good gut for politics, my instincts are not usually very far off and I really believed if we went into the 2013 election with Mr. Campbell as the premier, that we wouldn’t win.
“I’d tried more conventional methods of persuading him and persuading others that we needed to make a change and I was unsuccessful so I resorted to pretty extreme action to try to have him quit and he did that.”
Even so, Bennett was kicked out of the B.C. Liberal caucus, although it must be said he never lost the support of the great majority of his constituents.
“I remember when I came back, after getting kicked out of cabinet, I was a little bit down in the mouth, but I got to the airport, there were 120 people there with signs — it really helped keep me going.”
Premier Campbell resigned shortly after. Bennett, who remained in touch with party circles, supported George Abbott for party leadership, but quickly came to see the strengths of the eventual winner of the leadership contest, Christy Clark, who as leader welcomed Bennett back into caucus.
In 2013, following a B.C. Liberal election victory that they were supposed to lose, according to most polls, Bennett was appointed as B.C.’s Minister of Energy and Mines and Minister Responsible for Core Review, becoming one of the most influential and prominent figures in provincial government.
On Tuesday evening, Premier Clark was on hand at the Royal Alex to pay tribute to Bennett.
After an introduction by Bennett, Clark spoke of the fraught 2013 election, when everyone was saying the B.C. Liberals were “doomed, all across the province.” The period preceding the election was marked by a number of high profile Liberals retiring from politics, in advance of an expected election loss.
“When you’re counting on people who don’t necessarily have their hearts in it, what do you do? You find people with big hearts, who are prepared to invest in the future,” Clark said. “And that’s why I fought so hard to make sure Bill Bennett found his way back into caucus and back into our cabinet group.
“Bill always brings back honest clarity to the discussion. And even if you don’t agree with Bill, always know he’s telling you what he thinks. And I believe that people don’t just vote on what politicians say, they vote on whether or not they think politicians have character. And Bill Bennett is a man of tremendous character.”
Clark paid tribute to Bennett’s populism.
“For Bill, the waitress and her opinions are just as important as the guy who owns the restaurant she works in,” the premier said. “The man who picks the cherries in the orchard is just as important as the guy who owns the orchard. The guy who pours the concrete is just as important as the contractor who employs him. British Columbians, no matter who they are, or where they work, all of them matter to Bill Bennett.”
Clark brought up a bit of pre-election rah-rah.
“He’s a warrior for British Columbian, and a warrior for this riding. And this riding, we need another warrior,” Clark said.
Following his address inside the Royal Alexandra Hall, Bennett scrummed with local media to provide more details on the reasons behind his decision and to reminisce on is political career.
“Yeah, I’m sad,” Bennett said. “There’s a lot of ego in this job, if you haven’t noticed. You’re out in front and leading and you got people saying you’re a great guy and they usually want something and that’s the nature of the business.
“So it does kind of pump your ego and you have to make sure you keep that in check. It’s a really satisfying job to do, aside from the ego part of it, it’s a really satisfying job to do.”
He reached back 20 years ago when he got together with a group of doctors and a nurse—before he even had the B.C. Liberal nomination—to understand the issues with the East Kootenay Regional hospital.
And there were many.
“It was a terrible hospital, it got written up by Maclean’s [Magazine] as one of the worst rural hospitals in all of Canada. I remember that article. I have that article still in my files in the year 2000,” Bennett said.
“It’s now a beautiful regional hospital, $60-plus million later, with all the equipment we need, all the specialists we need. We have four or five of everything that we need in a regional hospital this size.”
Over the course of his career, Bennett said that compromise and supporting other members within caucus was a crucial ingredient to the B.C. Liberals capturing four consecutive majority governments.
“One of the great values that we have in the B.C. Liberal caucus—and it started with Gordon Campbell and I give him credit and Christy Clark has carried it on—is that you can say whatever the hell you want within our caucus room,” Bennett said. “If you disagree with the premier or somebody in the room, you just say so. We do that and we somehow or other keep it together and we cooperate, we support each other.
“If there’s a key to the success of the Liberal government, that’s what it is.”
Bennett says his successor—whomever wins the B.C. Liberal nomination—should be prepared to work hard.
“I don’t think anybody should get this seat on a silver platter,” Bennett said. “I hope a dozen people come out and say they want to be the MLA from Kootenay East and we had just a rip-roaring competition and the best person will win and that person will work hard because they’re going to have to work hard to win the nomination.”
However, there’s no doubt, people are interested in filling those shoes.
“There’s one guy who I’m sure is going to take a run at it and I know another guy who I think is going to take a run at it,” Bennett said. “I’d like to see women think about it. It’d be great to have a female candidate here for the BC Liberals. There’s lots of great, strong women in this area. They should think about doing this.”