Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harper undoing Bennett's 'conservative' legacy

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In a bizarre twist of history, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is dismantling institutions initiated some 80 years ago by another Conservative prime minister, Richard Bedford Bennett. The institutions are the CBC and the Canadian Wheat Board, highly regarded in their long lives and well-respected on the world stage.

The matter revolves around an issue pertinent to our times -- the role of government in our society. Harper believes in the marketplace and that the less government in the affairs of our country the better it will be for our economy.

Bennett, prime minister from 1930 to 1935, took an opposite view. He believed government should take a strong role in dealing with a country's grave problems.

In one way they are alike. They run the show. Harper has been called a control freak and Bennett drew similar criticism.

Archie Dale, renowned Free Press cartoonist, showed how tight Bennett's grasp was on the reins of government. A Jan. 19, 1931, cartoon shows Bennett and cabinet in session. All ministers appear as caricatures of Bennett, including the portraits on the wall.

Bennett worked a 14-hour day. He never married, did not smoke or drink. He held three principal cabinet posts and he knew more about the portfolios of his ministers than they did.

Bennett established the Canadian Wheat Board in 1935 to protect farmers against the whims of the marketplace and speculators. During the Great Depression, the price of wheat had sunk to an abysmal 34 cents a bushel. The CWB was set up as a monopoly for the benefit of the farmers -- wheat, oats and barley had only one buyer.

This allowed for orderly marketing and greater returns for the producers. Studies have shown the CWB did benefit farmers. Over the years, it was highly regarded in the international grain trade.

I witnessed one example in 1963 when Canada signed a contract to sell 5.6 million tonnes of wheat to the Soviet Union over several years -- the biggest sale to date in commercial history.

Even in this period of the Cold War, the Soviets so trusted the CWB they no longer felt it necessary to have one of their agents in Winnipeg, letting the Canadians handle exports.

Despite all these successes, as of August, the CWB has been emasculated by the Harper government, allowing farmers free choice. Notwithstanding the requirement in the act, the Harper government refused to allow farmers a plebiscite on the matter.

"In the new environment, the CWB will be just another grain company -- a very small one at that," says Andre Magnan, assistant professor, University of Regina, in a recent article in the Globe and Mail.

The CBC originated in an act passed by Bennett in 1932 called the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act. Bennett was farsighted. He saw the need for a cross-country system that serviced far-flung settlements. He felt the network would play an important role in strengthening Canada's social fabric.

Opposition to the public broadcasting system was vigorous and sustained, coming from such voices as Imperial Oil, CP Rail and giant retail firms. Bennett's own cabinet tried some dirty tricks while he was once absent, issuing a licence to an American radio station, among others. He rescinded their decision upon his return.

The Harper government takes a different view of public broadcasting and has cut the CBC's budget while overall government department spending has increased. Today, despite promises to the contrary, he has reduced the CBC's funding by a whopping 16 per cent.

"This is a vindictive, ideologically based attack on public broadcasting under the guise of getting spending under control," say the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an independent Canada-wide, non-partisan watchdog group with 175,000 supporters.

It would be tragic if the CBC met the same fate as the CWB. It is a voice of Canada, admired across the world.

My interest in Bennett was sparked after reading Bennett: The Rebel who Challenged a Changed Nation, by John Boyko. Bennett comes across as a social reformer. He advocated unemployment and health insurance, minimum wage and old age pensions.

But he failed in addressing the severe problems of the Great Depression, which endured from 1929 to 1939, when single men were offered work in relief camps with an allowance of 20 cents a day. Bennett was pilloried for his lack of success. One example is the "Bennett Buggy," a name given to cars without engines that were drawn by horses when farmers could no longer afford gasoline.

Bennett had no lack of funds of his own. He was a multimillionaire, his fortune amassed from business, finance, cement and a power company centred in Calgary. If necessary, he dipped into his own vast pockets to finance his campaigns.

Bennett left Canada in 1939 for England where he was granted a peerage, becoming Viscount Bennett of Mickleham in the County of Surrey and of Calgary and Hopewell in Canada in 1941. He bought an estate near London called Juniper Hill with 19 bedrooms, three cottages and vast grounds. He led a lonely life, however, filling in an afternoon by seeing two movies by himself.

Bennett was an enigmatic figure. A financial tycoon, he said: "The corporate elite is more dangerous than socialism." Clearly, Harper takes the opposite view for he has faith in the corporate elite, the ultimate authority in the marketplace.


Val Werier is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 29, 2012 A13


Updated on Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 11:53 AM CDT: Spelling of name corrected in headline

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