Obituary: ‘Old Leather Lungs,’ one of B.C.’s most colourful politicians

Former B.C. Social Credit cabinet minister Don Phillips, whose bombastic style earned him the nickname “Old Leather Lungs,” has died in hospital in Australia where he lived. He was 87.

Phillips had been struggling with heart and lung problems that worsened in recent months.

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The five-term MLA for South Peace River was first elected in 1966 and served under both premier W.A.C. Bennett and his son Premier Bill Bennett.

“He was part of the political crusade to revive the Social Credit party after the devastating defeat in 1972,” said David Mitchell, an historian, former MLA and author of W.A.C. Bennett and the Rise of British Columbia.

Mitchell said many observers doubted that Social Credit could come back, but Phillips and others seized the opportunity to resurrect the party under the Bennett family name.

“Don Phillips was an amazing, energetic, boisterous campaigner,” Mitchell said.

“Old Leather Lungs they called him, because he could be counted upon, not only in the legislature, but particularly on the hustings during election campaigns, for getting up and delivering what, in old-fashioned terms, were called real stemwinders. He wouldn’t require a microphone to reach a large audience.”

It was Phillips who nominated Bill Bennett for the party leadership in 1973 and then proceeded to speak longer than his candidate, Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer wrote in 1986.

Phillips’s reputation grew as a long-serving minister of economic development in Bennett’s cabinet.

“What I can I tell you about Don Phillips?” said Bob Plecas, a former deputy minister and author of Bill Bennett: A Mandarin’s View. “Don Phillips was one of the most colourful politicians we ever had in British Columbia.”

A Hansard transcript shows that Phillips once attacked the NDP in the legislature, saying, “You are socialist, you always will be socialist, you were socialist, and none of this biding my time, changing the stripes on the leopard.”

On another occasion, during debate of the Public Officials and Employees Disclosure Act, Phillips remarked: “I am certainly, as I have said before, in favour of disclosure. But I think disclosure should be kept private.”

His unique use of language aside, he was “a very smart guy,” a successful car dealer in Dawson Creek and strong believer in free enterprise, Plecas said.

“He was economic development minister for a very long time in Bennett’s government, because he was so good. He was one of the real trailblazers in opening trade with Japan, particularly, but also in China. I mean, we had offices in Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Don Phillips drove that agenda.”

He also steered the Northeast Coal mega-project that created Tumbler Ridge.

“He wasn’t a political strategist,” Plecas said. “He just was a solid minister who loved this province. If I had to compare him to anyone it would be Grace McCarthy; two similar cheerleaders, out there for British Columbia all the time. That’s who he was.”

Phillips left politics in 1986 and worked as a lobbyist before moving to Australia with his Australian-born wife, Joan, whom he married 34 years ago.

“I love Australia and the Australian people,” he told former Times Colonist columnist Jim Hume in 2009. “But I was born Canadian and I shall die Canadian.”

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