Close to 50 years ago a brash politician preparing to face a television panel of three hard-nosed Legislative Press Gallery reporters was introduced by moderator Andy Stephen as the “leather-lunged, silver-tongued orator from the Big Sky country of the Peace.”
It became the politician’s cherished trademark for next half century and was a featured phrase in most Canadian newspapers recording his death in Australia on October 5, 2016. He was 87.
“The Peace” was his treasured Peace River District of British Columbia, Canada, a land almost as vast as Australia’s Outback but with rolling grasslands stretching from horizon to horizon beneath a sky – a big sky – that takes the breath away.
The politician was Donald McGray Phillips, first elected MLA in 1966. After one term he declined to run in the 1969 election, but returned to the fray in 1972 to again win South Peace River and become one of 10 Social Credit members to survive the great NDP triumph of that year.
He spent the next three years working with a handful of other party survivors to re-build the shattered Socreds and prepare for the next election. It came surprisingly early with voting day December 11, 1975, a day that ended with the return to power of Social Credit and a new Premier W.R. “Bill” Bennett, son of W.A.C. Bennett, in command.
Don Phillips had nominated the son to replace his father after “the old man” stepped down.
As a reward for his efforts to rebuild the party and for his loyalty to father and son, plus his feisty energy in any project undertaken, he was appointed to Bill Bennett’s first cabinet with economic development his priority.
Although honed by three years in opposition where MLAs can attack government with scatter gun noise and inaccuracy – and Don often did with sound and fury signifying nothing – he was still a rookie as a cabinet minister when facing for the first time the challenge of knowledgeable reporters with the unforgiving eye of a television camera waiting to capture every slip of the tongue or error of fact.
He was meat for the media grinder. Or, should have been. But questions designed to embarrass or intimidate the new minister were swept aside by a tidal wave of verbosity. The man from the Peace had no intention of changing his style.
People who knew him in youth say he was always like that – outspoken, confident, energy driven, determined to succeed. Those were the qualities he took to the Ford Motor Company when he joined the firm on the lowest rung of the company ladder, a ladder he eventually climbed to outright ownership of a full service car dealership in Dawson Creek plus other business interests.
He took those same qualities to high office. His achievements in economic benefits to his province and country have long been recorded.
Among his heroes were Norman Vincent Peale, of Power of Positive Thinking fame. and W.A.C. Bennett, Premier of BC for 20 years from 1955 to 1975. Like his political hero Don was a big project thinker, always positive his ideas would work and endowed with the energy and determination to make sure that for the most part they did.
Like Bennett, he was a politician from the old school, a barnstormer on the hustings, not too sure of his grammar and often with suspect phraseology – but in a strange way, always clear in his message. Listeners knew what he meant even when he described socialist rivals as “leopards who couldn’t change their stripes.” He may have spoken in fractured English – but there was never any doubt about what he meant.
It seems ironic that the two failures in his body that brought his death on October 5 were in the heart and lungs, the two organs that brought him so many triumphs in business and in politics. Maybe he just wore them out.
Don was not a militant Christian or a regular church goer. But, he held firm to Christian principles and teachings and, in his quieter moments, confessed he believed in their greatest promise.
Christina Rossetti put that promise into a poem 150 or more years ago. She wrote that death was just that: Rest: “…a stillness that is almost Paradise….a darkness more clear than noonday…a silence more musical than any song….(where) the very heart has ceased to stir until the morning of eternity…the rest will not begin, nor end, but be…..and when he wakes he will not think it long.”
So, old “leather lungs” R.I.P – and be long remembered.
(Fans of Rossetti will notice my minor tweak to her words – and will hopefully approve.)