March 16, 1950, dawned cold and West Coast damp the day South Okanagan MLA W.A.C. Bennett resigned his membership in the Progressive Conservative Party, informed the Speaker he would henceforth sit as an Independent, and then, went to the movies. It was 5° Fahrenheit in the days before Celsius and raining off and on.
There is no record of what movie he took in, but he had five theatres to choose from: The Atlas offered John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; The Capitol, Spencer Tracy and James Stewart in Malaya; The Dominion, Gregory Peck in 12 O’clock High; the Royal, Lady Takes a Sailor with Jane Wyman; and the Fox, “Raging Island” and “raging passion of the place Stromboli with Ingrid Bergman under the inspired direction of Rossellini.”
Those who knew the old man guess he went to see 12 O’clock High with its heavy action and tough decision making. After all, he had been going through some heavy action in the legislature fighting endlessly with his own party to demonstrate inspiring leadership. Failing to arouse them, he had finally quit to sit as an independent like old Tom Uphill, who sat proudly as Labour’s lone representative to the dismay of the CCF – now the NDP.
Unlike Uphill, who never changed his independent status, Bennett survived only a matter of weeks as a loner. Stirring in the wings of BC politics at the time was a strange new party under the banner of the Social Credit League. Already active federally and strong provincially in Alberta, it attracted the maverick from Kelowna and the SCL welcomed him when he eventually became a member, even to the extent of wondering if he would like to be their leader. It was an offer Bennett declined. He liked some of the SCL’s new ideas but not others. He wanted to see if they were real before committing.
In April 1952, Premier Byron Johnson’s Coalition government of Liberals and Conservatives decided to go for broke. They called for an election on June 12. In the back rooms, they prepared a well-organized and completely legal trap to virtually guarantee return to their comfortable coalition pew.
The vote would be conducted on what they called a “preferential ballot.” It would be a first for BC and the pious organizers insisted it would be a much fairer way of electing a government than the “first past the post” system used around the world. And it would be simple: Candidates were listed alphabetically on the ballot; the voter would mark a first choice, then second and successively until every candidate got a vote in descending order of preference. When the votes were counted, the candidate with the least votes would be removed from contention with his/her votes then divided among survivors according to the preferences marked on the loser’s ballot.
The process would continue until one candidate emerged with more than 50 percent of the vote.
It was a month before a final decision could be announced and the Liberal/ Progressive Conservative Coalition had been truly hoisted on its own petard. The Coalition had convinced itself that Liberal voters would cast their first vote for Liberals with a second choice for a Conservative – or vice versa – and that the CCF voters would cast all their second votes to either Liberal or Conservatives and thus inadvertently re-elect the Coalition. It was inconceivable to those who had ruled so long that CCF socialists would ever make their second choice a candidate from the amateurs in a party which had no official leader and only one or two members with political experience. (Rev. George Hansell, unelected and not a candidate, was temporary Social Credit League leader during the election but had declared he didn’t want to make it permanent.)
Then the CCF did the unthinkable and, when the day was over, the Coalition was shattered. Social Credit had won 19 seats, the CCF 18, and the Coalition had dropped from 39 seats to 10 – six Liberals and four Tories. CCF supporters had solidly placed their second votes for the rooky SCL candidates presumably thinking it was a safe dump because the new party was not capable of generating much of its own support.
In short order, after the election, the SC League held a leadership convention to make W.A.C. their new leader and premier – a job he would hold for the next 20 years. His first year as premier was short and some suggest made so deliberately by the premier himself.
Convinced he could win a clear majority in an election re-run, he introduced school building legislation that he knew would end in a vote of non-confidence and a loss of government. His anticipation was accurate, the Social Credit government fell and CCF leader Harold Winch approached Lieutenant-Governor Clarence Wallace to suggest that, as he had only one seat less than Bennett, he should now be given a chance to govern. Lieutenant Governor Wallace didn’t agree and supported Bennett’s request to call another election to let the voters settle the issue.
It was held June 9, 1953, with the preferential ballot still in play. If he was gambling that second and third vote ballots would flow his way this time from disenchanted Tories and Liberals and that CCF supporters with a deep distrust of the coalition would also provide second vote strength, he was right. The Social Credit Party led on the first count and never looked back. When it was all over, the preferential ballot gave the Socreds 28 seats, the CCF 14, the Liberals four, Labour one, and the never-to-recover Conservatives one. In some ridings, it had taken six counts before a winner could be declared, and it was second and third votes that swung the SC to a final popular count of 300,372 which was still only 45.54 percent of the total vote.
Bennett never again used the system where second and third choices could overtake and surpass the first. Sitting governments, planning changes for the sake of change rather than legitimate need, should remember Robbie Burns: “The best laid schemes of mice and men oft go astray”