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EXCLUSIVE: Svend Robinson speaks to the NOW about why he's running again

A quarter-century in Parliament followed by more than a decade of international aid work would leave most 66-year-olds eager to settle into a relaxing retirement.
svend robinson
At the age of 66, Svend Robinson is still fired up to run for public office.

A quarter-century in Parliament followed by more than a decade of international aid work would leave most 66-year-olds eager to settle into a relaxing retirement.

So why is Svend Robinson mounting a comeback? Why volunteer for public scrutiny in the social media age?

“I still have lots of energy and lots of passion to fight to make a difference, and that's why I'm back,” he says.

The former NDP MP announced Tuesday he will be running in Burnaby North–Seymour in the Oct. 21, 2019 federal election. He will be trying to unseat incumbent Liberal Terry Beech.

Robinson spoke with the NOW in an exclusive one-on-one interview about his campaign plans. He’s been door-knocking in the riding for months, sussing out a potential campaign, and he says the people he’s met remember the name and face of prominent and long-serving Parliamentarian.

“Many people remembered – and across party lines – remembered my work as the representative for this community and the incredibly hard work that I did on behalf of my constituents,” he says.

Robinson sat in the House of Commons from 1979 to 2004 – making him one of the country’s longest serving MPs. In that time, he did far more than warm a seat in the opposition benches. He came out as the Canada’s first openly gay Parliamentarians; He spent 14 days in jail for protesting logging at Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island; He supported ALS patient Sue Rodriguez in her fight for physician-assisted suicide; He broke his jaw and ankle in a hiking accident on Galiano Island - and he was a constant presence at local community events.

And then there was the ring.

In 2004, Robinson pulled out of the election after admitting to stealing a diamond ring from an auction house in Richmond. Two years later, he attempted a political comeback in an unsuccessful run in Vancouver Centre. He lost to Liberal Hedy Fry.

On Tuesday, Robinson said, in hindsight, his 2006 run came too soon. But now he’s confident people have forgiven him for the ring theft and that society at large now has a better understanding of mental illness – the reason he’s given for the incident. 

Since then, he has spent most of his time based in Geneva, Switzerland working for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Following mandatory retirement in 2017, he sat on an advisory panel, helping craft Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology to gay and lesbian civil servants and military personnel.

But now he’s back in Burnaby and fired up. He says he’s ready to fight the prime minister on issues that matter to people in Burnaby and North Vancouver, particularly housing and climate change.

And he’s confident voters will tap him to take that fight to Ottawa.

“You may know my reputation as one of the most effective and hard-working members of Parliament,” he says.

But as news of his impending announcement came earlier in the week, Twitter users immediately began commenting on the ring. “Just what we need another thief in Parliament.”

Robinson said he hadn’t heard anyone raise the issue at the door.

“I certainly don't intend to run a campaign responding to trolls and tweets,” he says. “The people of this constituency realize that this was a mistake, a serious mistake that I made 15 years ago – 15 years ago. I took full responsibility at the time. I gave up the job I loved. I did community work service.”

He says the people he’s spoken to are most worried about housing affordability and the environment.

The riding has been the epicentre of the debate over the Trans Mountain pipeline. With its tank farm and marine terminal both in North Burnaby, many residents are worried about the potential impacts if the proposed expansion goes ahead.

Robinson said he will be a fierce opponent of the project.

Beech, who was one of only two Liberals to vote against the expansion project, has been ineffective in his efforts to raise his constituents concerns about the pipeline, according to Robinson.

“He's had no impact whatsoever,” Robinson says. “He can suck and blow as much as he wants but at the end of the day, you measure influence by results.”

That’s why, Robinson says, voters need an NDP representative who will take the fight to Trudeau.

“Elect enough New Democrats to make a difference instead of another ineffective Liberal backbencher,” he says.

Robinson repeated much of the same rhetoric as his party’s leader, Jagmeet Singh, who is running in a Feb. 25 byelection in neighbouring Burnaby South. He said the Trudeau Government has not invested enough in a national housing strategy and touted a New Democratic plan to implement controls on housing speculation.

“It’s a complete failure of leadership,” he says, adding that he believes housing is a “basic human right.”

Robinson admitted he faces a challenge with North Vancouver voters in the Seymour portion of the riding. New Democrats have not traditionally fared well on the North Shore, but he said that’s changing, pointing to the election of the BC NDP’s Bowinn Ma in North Vancouver–Lonsdale in the 2017 provincial election.

And another challenge, he admits, will be turning around a struggling party. The NDP sits in a distant third in the polls and is struggling to attract donations. On Monday, the Toronto Star reported the party had remortgaged its national headquarters in Ottawa for $12 million as it struggles financially.

“I'm confident things can turn around,” Robinson says. “I'm under no illusions: It's tough. There are many challenges that the party faces, but if I can contribute to helping turn things around, I welcome that opportunity.”

Reached by phone following Robinson’s announcement, Beech said he wasn't concerned about the experience and name recognition of his new opponent. 

He said his plan won’t change: “Waking up every day and working hard for our community.”

Beech said Robinson was wrong to say he’s been an ineffectual backbencher. The Liberal touted his record on the Trans Mountain file, saying he he has read every document and attended every hearing relating to the project.

“I’ve probably done more work than any other MP in the country on that particular issue,” he said. “The only people that have been missing in those hearings is the NDP MPs.”

Asked whether he would make a point of mentioning the ring incident during the upcoming campaign, Beech said “I will not be commenting on any of Svend’s previous criminal activity. Let other people talk about that.”