After 16 years in the hurly burly of British Columbia politics, Bill Bennett finds himself in an unfamiliar place.
“Politics is a rough sport,” the Kootenay East MLA told the Townsman this week. “There’s lots of bodychecking, a few elbows, a little charging, and from time to time the odd fight. I’m not so much accustomed to the place that I seem to be right now — elder statesman on his way towards retirement in six months.”
Bennett said that since he announced his pending retirement, “people have been very kind — all these folks who are coming up to me in the riding, emails and phone calls, people dropping into the office. It’s really quite rewarding.
“And it’s caused me to think of all I’ve got here, and it’s somewhat germane to what’s going on, with this renewal with both parties.”
Indeed, the autumn political season in Kootenay is heating up. Bennett’s pending retirement is leaving a vacuum that Tom Shypitka, David Wilks and Terry Segarty are seeking to fill on the B.C. Liberal side, and Randal Macnair and Norma Blissett on the NDP side — each seeking the nomination for their respective parties.
The political swirl has given Bennett pause, to reflect on what he believes it takes to be a successful MLA for the riding, regardless of party affiliation. It starts with the rural-urban divide that often separates areas of the hinterland like Cranbrook from the major urban centres of the province. This was very pronounced when Bennett was first elected 16 years ago.
“We were not on the radar in Victoria, or in Vancouver, in terms of the business community, or in the media,” Bennett said. “And as far as the cabinet went, we were off the map. People didn’t know where the area was. And I found a tremendous amount of ignorance, even apathy, as far as the East Kootenay goes.”
Over the years, that began to change.
“I probably brought every cabinet minister that ever served through the riding,” Bennett said. “I’ve gotten all sorts of media attention to the riding in itself. Before I was a minister — and there were various periods of time in my career when I was not a minister — I gave speeches on Cranbrook, on people in the riding. I tried to generate some interest in the riding. The profile of the riding came way up.”
But, Bennett added, the key is the way the individual elected represents his or her constituents. Previous experience is not necessarily a key factor.
“I was 50 years old when I first got elected, and I didn’t know the first thing about being an MLA, or even about politics,” Bennett said. “And people sometimes forget that.
“They think, ‘oh, we have to have someone with a whole lot of experience.’ I think what’s really important … is that it’s about the quality of the individual, it’s about the character of the individual, the work habits of the individual.”
An MLA, Bennett thinks, should grow into the job.
“The reasons for getting into politics — is it because the person wants to help others? Or is it because they just want a position? Are they going to Victoria to be somebody, or are they going to Victoria to do something?
“I would go so far as to say that political experience when you’re first starting is not necessarily an asset. It can actually be a detriment. You’re better off to go in completely open-minded, learn what needs to be done, and then do it your own way, without a bunch of so-called experts telling how you should go about being an MLA.
“You listen to people, and you’ll find out what needs to be done.”
Bennett said that to bridge that rural-urban divide, it is often necessary to “swim upstream.”
“And you have to really push back against the political machine — you have to push back against the party sometimes, you have to push back against the leader’s office sometimes, you have to push back against just about everybody sometimes, just to represent your constituents the way you believe is honest and true,” he said. “And that doesn’t take political experience. That takes character. And sometimes you have to swim upstream, even when it doesn’t make everybody happy in Victoria. “That’s what we need. We’re a long way from Victoria. And they’ll forget about us again if they don’t have that representation.”
Bennett said its important for a new MLA to find the balance between “that independence of mind, and the need to have friends in Victoria, to respect your colleagues, to respect the leader, to respect the party. I found that balance, and it wasn’t easy. And frankly, I hope we elect somebody who’s not a slave to politics, who’s not a slave to the party.”
Bennett added that he’s confident the B.C. Liberals can retake Kootenay East in the 2017 provincial election.
“But I think the issue is long-term — where you want to be four years, eight years, 12 years down the road. It takes four years for anybody to really learn the job. Then, if they get re-elected — and if they do a good job they will get re-elected — then you get quite useful, and will eventually get into cabinet. The concern for me is not getting someone elected — my concern is over the longer term.”