How Bill Bennett went from Liberal pariah to the premier’s inner sanctum

Bill Bennett | BCBusiness

Bill Bennett, to the surprise of many, has become one of Christy Clark’s most trusted lieutenants

The Heritage Inn Hotel, like just about every other business in Cranbrook, is on Highway 95, or what the locals invariably call the Strip. It’s exactly what you’d expect in a working-class town in the East Kootenays: comfortable, beige, overstuffed and a little worn around the edges. In the Skylight Café, the Honourable Bill Bennett—wearing faded work jeans, a short-sleeved check shirt, Merrell hiking boots and the ruddy complexion of a life lived outdoors—offers his hand in greeting, then surveys the room.

“OK, change of plans. There’s a better place just outside town—do you mind going for a bit of a drive?” I leave behind my rental car and jump into Bennett’s white Toyota Tundra pickup, our two photographers following close behind.

On the drive to St. Eugene Resort—a casino, hotel and golf course on the banks of the St. Mary River, 10 minutes from town—Bennett explains why he finds his adopted home so appealing. “It’s a very old-fashioned, blue-collar place. I chose to come here—it wasn’t accidental. I like a rough edge. I like loggers driving by in their pickup trucks with a dog in the back and a rifle hanging in a back window. This town’s like that—it’s raw, it’s real, it’s true.”

Not a bad description of Bennett himself, actually. With over 13 years in provincial politics, the MLA for Kootenay East, Minister of Energy and Mines, and Minister Responsible for Core Review has earned a reputation as the enemy of anything politically correct. A rough and tumble entrepreneur, prodigious dropper of f-bombs, Bennett’s the rebel who was kicked out of cabinet, twice, and forced to sit as an independent for telling Premier Gordon Campbell publicly that it was time to go. He was considered so toxic, so disloyal, that some cabinet ministers threatened to quit if Christy Clark let him back into cabinet when she became leader.

She did welcome him back—and most of the dissenters stuck around. To understand why, you have to look past Bennett’s salty-tongued, self-proclaimed “redneck” persona and recognize that politics is all about pragmatism. Bennett is the premier’s best communicator and one of her cabinet’s sharpest minds. A Grade 9 dropout who went back to school as a mature student and got a law degree from Queen’s University in his early 40s, he’s been given some of the most challenging economic roles: fix BC Hydro (increasing rates and investing in infrastructure); rebuild trust and create a new regulatory framework for the mining industry (after the Mount Polley tailings pond disaster); and, as minister responsible for the Core Review—a key plank in the Liberals’ re-election platform—rethink how government delivers its services (he’s already shaken up the Agricultural Land Reserve, axed the Pacific Carbon Trust and shut down the Provincial Capital Commission).

“Bill is prepared to be imaginative,” Premier Clark explained when I reached her by phone in her Kelowna riding. “He’s prepared to offer ideas that maybe nobody’s thought of, that some people might be too shy to mention. Bill is no shrinking violet. If he comes up with a big idea—even if it’s way outside the box—he’ll present it if he thinks it’s worth considering. Bringing that amount of imagination to the table is really crucial for me. I don’t think you can run a modern organization without it.”

Bennett, like his boss, is also extremely media savvy. That’s why, on this sunny summer day, we’ve ended up at St. Eugene, with its panoramic views of the Purcell and Rocky Mountains. A diverse group of residents and business people (among them executives from Teck, Canfor and Columbia Power, as well as Jeff Cynoweth, owner of the WHL Kootenay Ice) are strolling through the resort’s immaculate 18-hole course for the Ktunaxa Nation charity golf tournament. St. Eugene is the embodiment of modern Cranbrook: a successful native-run tourist business, on the grounds of a former residential school, with close ties to the area’s resource companies.

It’s also a much better photo-op.

Back in the fall of 2010, few would have guessed that Bennett would today be a popular MLA (re-elected three times, last year with 63 per cent of the vote) and ascendant player in the Clark administration, basking in the afterglow of an unexpected Liberal victory in 2013. Back then, a lifetime in the political wilderness seemed a far likelier scenario.

Bennett, like many of his caucus colleagues, had concluded shortly after the 2009 election that their leader, Gordon Campbell, had lost the plot. The surprise introduction of the HST caused no end of grief for government members. Campbell had grown increasingly erratic and bullying at cabinet meetings, and he reorganized the energy and mines ministry without even talking to his minister.

At first Bennett vented his concern to the premier in person. When that fell on deaf ears, he discussed the matter with people he trusted. “I talked to [former education minister] George Abbott,” he recounts over breakfast at St. Eugene. “I said, ‘George, I think he’s taking us down. I see signs of a guy who’s really tired and at the end of his tether. I think he’s desperate.’”

Ultimately, Bennett decided to make what he calls “a surgical strike.” He went to Jonathan Fowlie of the Vancouver Sun to discuss his disenchantment with Campbell, suggesting that the premier should step down. “We need to think about doing things differently,” he told Fowlie in a front-page story in October 2010. “We are not well thought of by the general public. Wouldn’t that suggest to you that perhaps it might be time to try a different approach?”

Nine days later, Campbell retired.

“Lots of people do not want Bill Bennett to take credit for this,” Bennett continues. “All I can tell you is that on the day he announced his retirement, everybody who was there—every prominent cabinet minister—got up and hugged him. Many of them had tears in their eyes. At the next cabinet meeting, a month later, when I got kicked out, there was nobody who’d wanted him to go or would say to him that he should go.”

It irks Bennett to this day that he took the fall. “There was this group—10 or 11 of us, including at least one minister—they all encouraged me to do what I did. When the time came, there wasn’t one person who ever acknowledged publicly that they wanted him to leave. Not one ever stood up and said, ‘I supported what Bill Bennett did. I actually encouraged him to do it.’”

It wasn’t the first time Bennett had run into trouble as a cabinet minister. In 2007, he’d resigned as minister of mines after sending a harsh email to a constituent—Maarten Hart, then president of the Fernie Rod and Gun Club—who had accused him of favouring big game hunters over resident hunters. Bennett wrote: “It is my understanding that you are an American, so I don’t give a shit what your opinion is on Canada or Canadian residents…. I will continue to work for hunters and anglers in the East Kootenay as I always have and you will continue to be a self-inflated, pompous, American know-it-all.” And he later had to apologize after an email, sent in his name by a junior staffer, referred to proponents of a national park in the Flathead Valley as “eco-fascists.”

Calling for Gordon Campbell’s resignation—and the consequences of mouthing off—was much more consequential. “The vast majority of cabinet ministers hated my guts—because in politics, loyalty is everything,” he says. “Pat Bell and Shirley Bond told Christy that if she let me back in the caucus, they were quitting. Rich Coleman wouldn’t talk to me. He’d turn around and walk the other way in the hallway when I was an independent.”

Sitting as an independent, an outcast, for five long months, Bennett contemplated his future. “I could have been leader of the BC Conservative party”—he says they informally approached him—“or I could have stayed as an independent like Vicki Huntington and probably gotten re-elected.” But Bennett wanted to be in government, not in opposition. “I don’t want to be the guy that leads that populist movement that’s always being critical. I want to do stuff. I want to get things done.”

In the leadership race to replace Campbell, Bennett supported his old friend Abbott: “It was mainly because George was a rural guy and I thought he would bring that perspective.” When Clark won—with the support of just one sitting MLA, Harry Bloy—Bennett, still a shunned independent, was among the first people the new leader took aside at her victory party.

“I felt it was important to bring Bill back into the fold quickly because it was important that we repair our party,” says Clark. “In 2011, after I became leader, the caucus was a mess. We had to repair relationships, and Bill coming back into the fold was a real signal of change.” As for the dissenters who thought that Bennett should never be allowed back into the party, Clark’s message was simple: “Listen, folks. If all of you hope to win the election, and I know that all of you do, then we must heal our internal divisions first.”

Being kicked out of cabinet and caucus was, says Bennett, “the most traumatic thing I’ve ever been put through.” But rebelliousness—and its consequences—was nothing new. Born into a family of small-business people in Ontario (his parents owned Bennett’s Home Furnishings in Campbellford, two hours east of Toronto), he was asked to leave school in Grade 9 by teachers who didn’t want to deal with a perpetual troublemaker.

“I don’t know if I had attention deficit syndrome or what it was,” he says, “but I just truly didn’t give a shit whether I passed or failed. I would argue with teachers—and I could win the debates at least half of the time. I didn’t lack for confidence in my own ability, but I just didn’t care about the formal stuff.”

He spent summers with his father, hunting and fishing at the family cabin in Northern Ontario. When he went looking for work in his late teens, his grandfather hooked him up with a friend who had a fly-in fishing lodge near Red Lake, Ontario—an experience that shaped his life. He worked at the lodge from 1968 to 1976, then managed it. “And then the light bulb went on that I had some business acumen. I realized I should own my own place.” Borrowing from friends and family, he and his wife, Beth (a dairy farmer’s daughter and his high school sweetheart), scraped together $75,000 and bought “a rundown, crappy little business” in northern Manitoba. “I knew what I was looking for. It had to be a big lake, virtually untouched, really top-quality fishing and a long ways beyond where anybody else is.”

Bennett travelled North America to promote the lodge at sportsmen’s shows. “I was this young, brash Canadian guy who wasn’t letting his customers take these big fish out. The lodge was written up by conservationists and outdoor writers who put two and two together and realized, shit, he must have really good fishing.” He built Nueltin Fly-in Lodges into one of the premier luxury fishing lodges in the country and Canada’s first catch-and-release operation. He sold it a decade later for “a whole bunch of money.”

The key to that early success, he says, was “understanding how to market yourself and your business. I had to learn a lot about marketing—and I had a knack for it, which I brought into politics. I realized that if you have a story to tell people that resonates with them, you’re going to connect with them in a way that they’re probably going to buy from you.”

As Bennett approached his 40th birthday, he felt it was time for the next chapter. After selling the resort, he returned to Campbellford and helped raise his two young sons while Beth ran a local dress shop. He also enrolled in law school at Queen’s, in Kingston. When he graduated, three years later, the Bennetts moved again, this time out west. He had a close friend in Cranbrook, a doctor he’d played hockey with, who sold him on life in the East Kootenays. But the other reason for his choice was practical.

“I did an analysis of all the towns and cities in Canada that I’d consider living in, and I got all the Canadian Bar Association information and Law Society information and made a comparison of lawyers per 1,000 population in all these communities. Cranbrook was under-lawyered.” He practised law from 1994 until he got elected for the Liberals in 2001.

It’s the analytical side of Bennett—the number-cruncher, the problem-solver—that Christy Clark has called upon in her first full mandate, putting the entrepreneur-cum-lawyer in charge of complex and politically challenging files. Bennett relishes taking on the unpopular files and seeing them through because “it’s the right thing to do.” It’s why he went catch-and-release at his fishing lodge in the late ’70s, when nobody else was doing it. “All my competitors said, ‘If you don’t let people keep all the fish they catch, they’ll never come back.’” But they did, and by instituting strict conservation standards, Bennett built a reputation for top-notch fishing at Nueltin.

That same determination—his critics would say stubbornness—lies behind his biggest win since being re-elected in 2013: overhauling the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and the commission that governs it, the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC). Bill 24, which introduced those changes, created two zones across the province: Zone 1, comprising Vancouver Island, the South Coast and Okanagan regions, keeps the status-quo imperative of protecting agricultural land. Zone 2, comprising the Interior, Kootenay and North regions, now allows for consideration of non-agricultural uses on what’s generally considered less desirable farmland.

“I have to be careful what I say, because it was a cabinet process, but the two zones was not our first choice,” Bennett admits. “Our first choice was to make the changes to how decisions are made and allow more flexibility—the way we did in Zone 2—across the whole province.” Ironically, that’s what the B.C. Agriculture Council also wanted. “That’s what they asked us for. We didn’t do that because the MLAs from urban B.C. were afraid.” By Bennett’s account, many urban caucus members—“MLAs who have zero agriculture, flower pots outside the windowsills of their apartment buildings maybe”—didn’t want to face left-leaning voters with a proposal to take land out of the ALR, no matter its agricultural value. “So we decided it was better to limit these changes to areas where it would be more acceptable to the people who lived there.”

Critics, including NDP leader John Horgan, say Bennett is trying to fix something that isn’t broken—and didn’t bother to consult with anyone before making the biggest changes to the ALR since its creation in 1973. “In my experience in public policymaking,” says Horgan, “you usually have to identify a failing, get the public to understand that there’s a failing, and then provide a solution. Mr. Bennett went straight from ‘I think there’s a problem’ to ‘Here’s my solution—and I’m not even going to talk to people about it.’ I think his haste was the challenge here. If there was a problem, the Liberals did not articulate it effectively. And then they rammed it through—because they had the power to do so.”

Bennett makes no apologies. “There are times when, if you really believe what you’re doing is right, you have to put your head down and do it. We did it in 2001 and 2002—we closed hospitals, we closed seniors homes, we laid off thousands of people, and we didn’t consult with anybody. We did it because we knew we had to do it.

“When the ALR was created here,” he adds, gesturing out the restaurant window toward the mountains, “they drew a line at the foot of the Rockies over here at a certain elevation. Then they went over to the west and drew a line at the foot of the Purcell Mountains. And they said, ‘Everything within those two lines is within the reserve.’ It’s not this big fertile valley that’s got 10 feet of topsoil. It’s really rough and tumble: there’s mountains within the valley, there’s swamps, it’s forested.”

Bennett rejects the notion presented by Corky Evans, the former NDP agriculture minister and fellow Kootenay resident, who wrote an open letter that equated Bill 24 to a plot dreamed up by the Fraser Institute, corporations and banks, “who will get richer paving farmland than by leaving it alone.”

“It’s sacrosanct. You can’t fix it. You can’t do anything to it. You can’t touch it,” Bennett says mockingly. “Think about that from a public policy point of view. You create something 40 years ago, and you cannot touch it? It can’t be improved? That’s ridiculous.”

The changes to the ALR have proven popular with most of Bennett’s constituents. At a meeting with the Kootenay Livestock Association the day after our breakfast at St. Eugene, Faye Street, general manager for the association, praises her MLA for standing his ground to push the changes through—and for his willingness to protect farmers and ranchers, not just farmland.

“There’re all talking up there [in Victoria] about subdivisions,” says Street, an imposing middle-aged woman who pounds the meeting room table for emphasis. “All Bill 24 is going to do is subdivide, subdivide, subdivide. But you know what? It has nothing to do with subdivision. This has to do with whether or not it’s going to help agriculture sustain itself and stay alive and bring some of our young people back.”

The pro-Bennett sentiment continues when I canvass the crowd later that day at a barbecue celebrating Sam Steele Days. It’s the 50th anniversary of the popular festival honouring B.C.’s most famous Mountie, and Bennett’s here to unveil a time capsule for future Cranbrook residents. Between burgers, ice cream and cake (provided by lumber giant Canfor), he’s cornered by constituents who want to congratulate him or have their picture taken with him. When one complains about how hard it is to find a family doctor in town, Bennett tells her: “You can’t pay them to move here.”

Bennett’s BlackBerry rings. It’s Chris Sandve, his chief of staff, calling from Victoria. Global TV wants him to respond to comments made by Richard Stout, executive director of the Association of Major Power Customers—an industry lobby—who’s complaining about the higher hydro rates that came into effect last April.

The opposition to changes to the ALR will be a walk in the park compared to what Bennett faces at BC Hydro. The utility is in desperate need of critical capital investment: upgrades, rebuilds and the potential addition of a third dam and generating station on the Peace River, the $7.9-billion Site C Project. All of this means unprecedented rate hikes, for both consumers and industry, in the order of 28 per cent over the next five years.

“In the 1990s, there were no rate increases,” explains Bennett as we head back to his constituency office, where he’ll conduct the Global interview by remote camera. “The NDP bragged about it. But what other business can you run where you don’t at least keep up with the rate of inflation? Your investment in infrastructure is not going to happen if you’re not increasing your revenue, and the only way for Hydro to make that investment is to reduce its expenses, yes—but mainly to increase rates.”

A month after Sam Steele Days—at the John Hart Generating Station in Campbell River, with three 90-metre-tall surge towers as his backdrop—Bennett makes the case for rate hikes. He’s here, along with newly minted BC Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald, to launch construction on a $1.1-billion replacement project for the 67-year-old facility, which sits on the banks of the popular salmon-fishing river in northern Vancouver Island. The John Hart revitalization, which will take five years to complete, is the largest infrastructure project undertaken by BC Hydro since the 1980s.

“It’s a lot of money, even in today’s terms, and it’s an indication of what BC Hydro is facing right across the province, not just here on Vancouver Island,” Bennett tells the crowd of Hydro workers, First Nations leaders, local politicians and media. While the necessary investment means higher rates, he says, BC Hydro is working hard to control costs. “And our part, as government, is to take less money from BC Hydro over the next 10 years—and we’ll be taking considerably less for dividends, considerably less in terms of net income. That will leave Hydro with several billion dollars that they wouldn’t otherwise have had, that they frankly don’t need to borrow and repay with ratepayer’s money.”

Bennett transitions seamlessly from the guy defending individual property rights in the ALR to the guy who’s essentially raising taxes. “The fact is,” says Horgan, the NDP’s longtime energy critic before he became leader last May, “Christy Clark has given him an almost impossible task, which is to rein in BC Hydro after the government had interfered so many times in the operation of the Crown. I think it’s a bit of a poison pill for him.”

Equally challenging will be repairing damage to the mining industry caused by the Mount Polley breach. Millions of cubic metres of waste were released into the Fraser River watershed from a mine owned by Imperial Metals. While the water was later deemed to be at safe levels, the incident raised serious questions about the safety of tailing ponds across the province. Within weeks, Bennett had ordered two independent investigations—one into the Mount Polley incident (to be completed by January 31, 2015), the other a series of inspections of all the tailing ponds in B.C. (to be completed by this December).

It’s telling that Bennett, and not the premier, has been out in front on both issues—Hydro rate hikes and Mount Polley. When there’s bad news to be delivered, Bennett’s the minister who’s trusted to do it, and do it well. “I don’t think it was an accident that he was given the energy portfolio, because on the other side of the floor is John Horgan—he’s the energy guy, he’s the expert,” says Gary Mason, The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver-based columnist. “Clark needed somebody able to go toe-to-toe with Horgan on some of these big energy questions.

“Bill Bennett will always have a degree of maverick in him—that’s just his nature,” adds Mason, “but I don’t think he’s been as outspoken as he has been in the past. I think he understands that he was given a fairly significant second chance by Clark to get back into cabinet and to play a senior role. Consequently, he’s become one of Clark’s most trusted cabinet ministers.”

Former cabinet colleague George Abbott agrees that there’s been a maturation in Bennett, a softening of his rebel edge. “I think he was pretty deft in his management of the Mount Polley issue, which was—and is—a difficult one, given his position. I think there’s been a bit of a rebalancing of the persona with him back in cabinet. Now he’s moving into a kind of senior statesman role. He’s a little more cautious in his choice of words. I think it’s working well for him.”

Bennett acknowledges that he’s had to modify his style since rejoining the cabinet. “As a politician, you say to yourself: I want to be honest, I really want to say what I think—people want genuine, they want real. But I’m tired of having the shit kicked out of me. I’m tired of being made to feel like I’m some sort of fucking weirdo in politics.

“If I’m going to achieve the goals that I have for myself as an elected official, I have to adapt. I don’t want to sacrifice who I am, but I have to adapt to the extent that allows me to be successful. Christy Clark knew—and we had some discussions early on—that the experience that I went through with Gordon Campbell had been traumatic. It was like electroshock. I just would never allow myself or my family to go through that again.

“I think I’m still open and honest,” says Bennett, dropping me off at my hotel on the Strip before heading to a fundraising dinner. “I’m just a hell of a lot more careful.”