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PMs from Calgary opposites

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Canada has had two Conservative prime ministers from Calgary. One is determined to undo the other's legacy.

Richard Bedford Bennett created three pivotal national institutions during his one term as prime minister from 1930 to 1935. In the midst of the Great Depression, he established the Bank of Canada, the Canadian Wheat Board and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Stephen Harper has destroyed the CWB. He's on track to cripple the CBC, perhaps fatally. He likes the Bank of Canada. But he was gung-ho to deregulate banking while opposition leader.

There are similarities -- and striking dissimilarities -- between Canada's two Calgary prime ministers.

First, the similarities. Neither were native Calgarians. Bennett was born in Hopewell Hill, N.B., Harper in Toronto.

Both are Conservatives. Neither were Progressive Conservatives. Bennett led the party before it renamed itself the Progressive Conservatives in 1942. Harper became leader of the reborn Conservative Party in March 2004, four months after it dropped the word Progressive from its name following the merger of the PCs and the Canadian Alliance.

Now, the dissimilarities. While not a Progressive Conservative, Bennett was a progressive. Campaigning in the 1930 federal election with the Great Depression looming, Bennett pledged aggressive action to combat unemployment.

His Library and Archives Canada biography quotes him on June 9, 1930, saying this about the onrushing crisis: "I propose that any government of which I am the head will, at the first session of Parliament, initiate whatever action is necessary to (address unemployment) or perish in the attempt."

He allocated $20 million toward that goal. An enormous sum in those days, it wasn't nearly enough. By 1932, unemployment was so high that Bennett brought in the Relief Act which established camps to provide unemployed single men with a subsistence living.

As the Depression deepened, he became the butt of jokes. "Bennett Buggies" were cars and trucks pulled by horses because their owners couldn't afford gas. Records show the prime minister sent money from his own pocket in response to an ongoing deluge of letters from desperate Canadians.

And he adapted to the times. States the official biography: "Influenced by American President Roosevelt's New Deal, Bennett proposed a new platform of government policy in 1935, announced to the nation in a series of radio broadcasts." The new platform included the minimum wage, health and unemployment insurance, regulation of banking and trade and other social reforms.

He also created the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission in 1932 and the Canadian Wheat Board and the Bank of Canada in 1935. However, his insistence that the Conservatives adopt a radical platform of political and social reform caused a rift in his party, causing its defeat in 1935.

Harper's Conservatives, too, introduced an aggressive stimulus budget during the 2008-09 global economic crisis when they were in minority. Today, in majority and considering the economy healed, they are balancing the books no matter the pain. But ideology is driving their attacks on the wheat board and the CBC.

Before the budget, six Conservative backbenchers presented petitions to the House of Commons seeking to "de-fund" the CBC.

The budget disproportionately slashed the CBC's budget. While overall government spending was cut by six per cent, the CBC was cut by 10 per cent or $115 million. But when inflation, other increases and severance and forced-retirement costs are added, the CBC's real loss doubles to 20 per cent and $200 million over the next three years.

Before the budget axe, Canada, at a meagre $34, not only was third-lowest among the 18 member states of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in per-capita support for public broadcasting, it was almost three times below the OECD $87-per-apita average. Only the U.S., at $4, and New Zealand, at $27, are lower.

As for the CWB, former CWB directors are challenging the government on separate issues in the courts, but it will effectively be dead before any of these cases are heard. What would Bennett make of Harper?

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg

author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 18, 2012 A11

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