Svend Robinson talks about returning to politics to push a tough approach to climate change
There were plenty of microphones and video cameras at Svend Robinson’s news conference where he called for the federal Liberal government to expand the eligibility for medically assisted dying to those who give advance consent.
Despite 15 years away from Canada and Canadian politics, time doesn’t seem to have changed the veteran New Democrat.
His appeal was passionate, personal and unyielding. He called the Liberal government’s current legislation “cruel, unjust and unconstitutional.”
At the end, the eternally media savvy Robinson leaned forward, eager to answer questions. That’s when he noticed that some things have changed since his last campaign in 2004. There were no reporters behind the cameras. It surprised and concerned him.
Robinson’s re-entry into federal politics as the NDP candidate in North Burnaby-Seymour has a familiar feel. Partly it’s because some of the issues he championed during his nearly 25 years in Parliament that gained him a reputation as a radical and frequently made him a thorn in the side of the succession of his party’s leaders remain current.
Others are long since solved. Robinson’s first private member’s bill in 1979 proposed expanding abortion rights. It was defeated, but in 1988 the Supreme Court of Canada forced change by striking down the law.
As the first openly gay member of Parliament, Robinson urged that sexual orientation be protected in the Constitution. It wasn’t. But the Supreme Court of Canada referred to the Constitution 13 years ago in its decision that legalized same-sex marriage. And, as one of his last acts in Parliament, Robinson has his private member’s bill passed that added sexual orientation to the hate speech law.
His list of causes is long. Robinson supported Sue Rodriguez’s failed bid to have medically assisted suicide approved by the Supreme Court of Canada 25 years ago. It eventually happened. But it took 22 years.
In 1992, China expelled Robinson, who was there investigating human rights abuses after the Tiananmen massacre. He was arrested at environmental protests in Haida Gwaii and Clayoquot Sound, which were both eventually protected.
But it was his arrest for stealing a diamond ring that derailed his political career. After pleading guilty, Robinson was given a conditional discharge and left Canada to work for the Global Fund based in Switzerland.
That arrest haunts the news stories about his current run. But Robinson insists when he knocked on several hundred doors before making up his mind to seek the nomination, it was never mentioned.
Robinson is now eligible for Old Age Security. But with the time he’s got left, it’s the unresolved issue of climate change and the crisis that have lured him back into the fray.
Housing, he points out, is a basic human right. Yet, in Burnaby North-Seymour, the median house price is $1.5 million, which means that even if you can come up with the $300,000 down payment, you’d need an income of $235,000 to support it. Yet, Statistics Canada says the riding’s average household income in 2015 was $103,430.
“I’m still a socialist,” said Robinson. “And this is a failure of the market and if I can use this as an illustration of the need to reorganize society, I will.
Governments and elected representatives have to accept responsibility and start building affordable housing.”
As for climate change, Robinson said this fall’s federal election is Canada’s last chance to turn things around and it will take putting the country on a “wartime footing” to get it done.
He’s calling a “radical transformation” of the Canadian economy that would include a ban on all oil and gas infrastructure expansion and a ban on liquefied natural gas plants.
“It has to be a just transformation,” says Robinson, adding that the threat to human survival is so great that trade union leaders and others will be won over because “they are parents and grandparents, too.”
To accomplish a just transformation, it will mean retraining displaced workers for jobs building other energy-saving infrastructure such as high-speed rail. And it will mean retrofitting older housing stock and commercial buildings to make them more energy efficient .
Robinson’s plan has strong parallels with the Green New Deal recently proposed by U.S. Democrats. It’s also strikingly similar to the four-year-old Leap Manifesto proposed by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein and supported by David Suzuki, who spoke at Robinson’s nomination meeting.
That manifesto has never been adopted by federal New Democrats. It’s too radical, especially for the two NDP premiers — John Horgan in B.C. with his LNG agenda and Alberta’s Rachel Notley, who’s battling hard to get pipelines approved so that her province’s oil can get to market.
Certainly, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who’s running in the Feb. 25 byelection in Burnaby South, has steered clear of it. But he does opposes the Trans Mountain pipeline and the Liberal government’s $4.5-billion investment in it and has urged stricter emissions targets and investments in sustainable jobs for the future.
For now, Robinson and Singh appear to be on the same page. Singh endorsed his nomination, while Robinson has campaigned in Singh’s byelection campaign. When we talked, Robinson was scorching in his criticism of former leader Tom Mulcair and others who have tried to undermine Singh’s leadership.
Time and again, Burnaby voters embraced Robinson and his radical ideas. Now, the question is whether they’re ready to go back to face the future.
As for the New Democrats, the latest Nanos poll showed national support has plummeted to 13 per cent. For better or worse, the party and Singh need all of the interest and support that Robinson’s renaissance can attract.