For Svend Robinson, there was no better place to denounce the Trudeau government’s Trans Mountain pipeline policy than the constituency office of Liberal MP Terry Beech.
Since 2015, Mr. Beech has been MP in the Burnaby North-Seymour riding Mr. Robinson wants to win for the New Democrats in this fall’s federal election, launching the second act of his political career after 15 years in private life.
Mr. Robinson describes the riding as “Ground Zero" for the pipeline expansion because it’s the location for the tank farm that will store bitumen shipped from Alberta. Also, tankers will pick up that energy product for shipment.
So the former New Democratic MP and now party candidate summoned the news media earlier this summer to Mr. Beech’s office, and levelled his criticism over Ottawa re-approving the pipeline expansion. At the time, Mr. Beech was away, in Ottawa.
“You’ve got to be creative," Mr. Robinson said of taking the fight to his political foe’s doorstep.
"You have got to find creative and effective ways of getting your message out.”
Fifteen years after his career as a high-profile MP came to a dramatic end, Mr. Robinson is trying to get back into the House of Commons. And he sees the environment as a crucial issue for his and his party’s chances this fall – something that has already brought him into open conflict with his own party.
Mr. Robinson is now 67 and two years past retiring from a consultant’s role in Europe with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. His career after leaving politics in 2004 also included a stint with the Public Services International global trade-union federation.
In April 2004, Mr. Robinson abruptly quit his post as a Burnaby MP after stealing a $21,000 ring at an auction. The incident prompted him to open up about mental-health issues.
Now, he says he has been inspired to give politics another shot by the climate-change crisis as well as the housing crunch that’s putting reasonable accommodation out of the reach of many Canadians.
Mr. Robinson made headlines in May after the NDP lost a federal by-election in Nanaimo, where the party previously held the seat, to the Greens. He took to Twitter to warn that the results were a “wake-up call” that the party must be bolder on climate change and other environmental issues, such as natural-gas fracking and new petroleum infrastructure. It was seen as a direct challenge to the party and its leadership.
Mr. Robinson now casts himself as a loyal trooper for the NDP cause and has kind words for party Leader Jagmeet Singh. He also says he’s content with the NDP’s platform, which includes a $15-billion climate plan. “I am quite comfortable taking this into the election and riding on this,” he said.
He acknowledged NDP troubles, including departing incumbents and discouraging poll numbers, but said Mr. Singh has a few months to turn things around as national leader of the party. He also dismissed the suggestion that he might be interested in seeking the leadership.
The fight to win the riding in October has plunged Mr. Robinson into some of those challenges facing the party, which is attempting to stay relevant against the Liberals and Greens on the left. The party is also seeking to overcome dismal fundraising and the exit of such high-profile MPs as Nathan Cullen.
The expanded Trans Mountain pipeline, which the federal Liberals bought and recently re-approved after it became stalled in the courts, would mean more tanks at a complex in the riding, and increased tanker traffic off its shores. Mr. Robinson is betting that the Liberals will pay a political price for supporting the pipeline expansion.
Anita Kuttner, the riding’s Green Party candidate, says the former MP may be out of synch with the times. “He came in, a similar age to me coming in now and did a great job. There’s no reason I can’t do tha,t too,” said the 28-year-old astrophysicist. “In the political sphere, Svend did a lot and it’s wonderful, but we’re in a new era and there are new topics to be discussed.”
In saluting Mr. Robinson, Ms. Kuttner is referring to an expansive record. The critic of U.S. foreign policy once heckled Ronald Reagan while the U.S. president was speaking in Parliament. He was with Sue Rodriguez, grappling with ALS, when her fight for physician-assisted suicide ended with a doctor helping her take her life, raising the profile of the issue. He spent 14 days in jail for peaceful civil disobedience protesting against logging of old-growth forests in B.C. The advocate for LGBTQ issues was the first openly gay parliamentarian.
He was admired, and disliked. He knows that well.
“When you take a stand on issues, there will be people that passionately support you and people that equally passionately despise you," he said.
Even when he lived and worked abroad, Mr. Robinson said he maintained his roots in Canada. “Obviously, I was based in Switzerland but my partner Max and I have always had a place on Galiano Island, and came back as often as we could,” he said.
Graeme Truelove, author of a 2013 biography of Mr. Robinson − Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics − says it was never inevitable that the former MP would try to return to politics, but that it’s not entirely surprising.
“This is somebody who was never going to retire to a beach with a good book,” Mr. Truelove said.
This is Mr. Robinson’s second attempt to get back into politics. In 2006, Mr. Robinson ran in the Vancouver-Centre riding held by incumbent Liberal Hedy Fry. Ms. Fry won with 44 per cent of the vote compared with 29 per cent for second-place Mr. Robinson.
He speaks of the exercise with a visible distaste. “It was too early. I shouldn’t have run there. It was too early after the ring.”
When Mr. Robinson was last an MP, just before the 2004 federal election, Jack Layton was leader of the NDP at the forefront of a 14-member caucus. Paul Martin was the Liberal prime minister.
Today, the NDP has 41 members among 335 in Parliament. In British Columbia, they have 13 of 41 seats, just behind the Liberals with 17. There are eight Conservatives, two members of the Green Party and one independent.
However, one recent Angus Reid survey suggested the NDP were fourth behind the Greens in B.C.
Of the Greens, Mr. Robinson said the NDP’s best tactic to counter them is to emphasize its long, hard work on social- and economic-justice issues. “I think the NDP brings more to the table [than the Greens] on those issues,” he said.
In 2015, Mr. Beech won Burnaby North-Seymour by six percentage points over the second-place NDP. The Conservatives were close behind. This year, the Conservatives are running Heather Leung, an occupational therapist who previously ran for Burnaby city council. In 2015, the Greens won five per cent of the vote.
Mr. Robinson and Ms. Kuttner agree that 2015 saw voters shift to the Liberals and Justin Trudeau to head off the re-election of Stephen Harper and his Conservatives.
“No one speaks of Trudeau mania now,” Mr. Robinson said.
Mr. Beech was not available for an interview.
Mr. Robinson said he would like to see the NDP elect enough MPs to hold the balance of power “along with a few Greens” in a minority parliament.
And if this second attempted comeback fails? He is too focused on campaigning to consider the possibility, he says. “I am not making any plans beyond Oct. 21.”