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B.C. Premier hands campaign reins to Bill Bennett

Bill Bennett was ejected from caucus in 2010 after he criticized outgoing premier Gordon Campbell as an abusive bully and “not a nice man.”

Deddeda Stemler for the Globe and Mail/deddeda stemler The Globe and Mail

Some politicians are known for their candour – usually when it gets them in hot water. But B.C. Liberal MLA Bill Bennett thinks his party could use an injection of straight talk, and Premier Christy Clark seems to agree.

Ms. Clark has picked Mr. Bennett, one of her party's best-known mavericks, to help shape the B.C. Liberals' election platform, a sign that her plan to rebrand the party will include more than a name change.

Mr. Bennett, the MLA for Kootenay East, is co-chair of the party's election platform committee along with Education Minister George Abbott.

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"What I have learned in politics, honesty is rewarded," Mr. Bennett said in an interview. "People crave authenticity. How we can build that into a provincial election campaign, I don't know – but it's going to be a neat trick if we can do it."

Mr. Bennett was ejected from caucus in 2010 after he criticized outgoing premier Gordon Campbell as an abusive bully and "not a nice man." He provided reporters with a vivid description of Mr. Campbell chewing him out so ferociously that Mr. Bennett was left wiping spittle from his face.

Many of his B.C. Liberal colleagues were furious with him for straying from caucus solidarity, but he said public reaction was more encouraging. In fact, every time Mr. Bennett has generated controversy with his blunt talk, he's been rewarded with encouragement from voters, he said.

He describes himself as a rural-populist conservative. He was first elected in the B.C. Liberal sweep of 2001, seizing a seat that the New Democrats had held since 1986.

And he has held the seat despite, or perhaps because of, incidents that most politicians would be advised to avoid.

Such as his profanity-laced response to a constituent's complaint in e-mail. (A highlight: "You will continue to be a self-inflated, pompous, American know-it-all.") Mr. Bennett was dumped from cabinet over the e-mail, but won re-election. In explaining the intemperate message, Mr. Bennett said he was guilty of being a little too earthy – having dropped out of high school to work in fish camps. He was a veteran of bar fights, but later learned to use his words when he went on to earn a law degree.

As when he spoke up about Mr. Campbell's leadership style, Mr. Bennett again paid a price in his political career but earned kudos from the public. "They are on to politicians. They know when they are being messaged, when a politician is in a box; they can smell it. So if we can find a way to communicate with people that is refreshing and open, we have more chance of being successful."

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The B.C. Liberals are struggling in the polls after more than a decade in power. Ms. Clark was chosen to replace Mr. Campbell in the hopes that she could restore the party's fortunes, but a year into her leadership, the B.C. Liberals are still well behind the opposition New Democrats in popularity.

Mr. Bennett was brought back into the caucus last spring. He has long advocated changing the name of the party, which is a centre-right coalition, to something that would be more welcoming to conservatives like himself. Ms. Clark now supports that idea.

But he acknowledges that strategy has its limits, particularly on the harmonized sales tax which remains an issue of contention with voters.

"The name change is not going to resolve the issues that exist between the electorate and our party on the [harmonized sales tax,] he said. "We breached their trust in a significant way."

He's also taking on another unpopular policy – the carbon tax and his government's climate change agenda. Last week in the legislature, Mr. Bennett suggested that B.C. can't make a difference in limiting the release of human-caused carbon dioxide, so it should look to phase out the tax.

This time, instead of a reprimand, he was handed the task of shaping what vision the B.C. Liberals should present to voters in the election of May, 2013.

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"Premier Clark has recognized there is a need for a different kind of voice," he said. "I've always practised politics somewhat differently than others... Sometimes you tread a fine line in a team sport. She has given me an opportunity to what she called my 'fertile mind' to really participate at the highest level."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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