Svend Robinson is the only Canadian federal politician I've ever voted for. I have lived in what is now his constituency for 32 years, and he was first elected here when I was 10 years old, in 1979. He is by far the best-known member of Canada's Parliament who has never belonged to a governing party—recognizable by first name alone to a decent chunk of the Canadian populace, even those living thousands of kilometres away.
Today, he revealed that last Friday he spontaneously and inexplicably stole an expensive piece of jewelry (a ring worth some $50,000), which he returned after the long weekend by contacting police himself. He cannot explain why he took the item, but revealed in a press conference that he has been under considerable stress in recent months. Psychologists interviewed on the radio—this story has been top news across Canada—speculate that Robinson may also still be suffering from post-traumatic stress following drastic injuries he suffered in 1997, when he fell down a ravine while hiking alone on Galiano Island, not far from Vancouver. He almost died, and had to crawl his way to help despite broken bones and a shattered jaw.
Principles and PR
His admission is, aside from being totally unexpected and quite sad, a remarkable piece of PR. He is an elected official admitting to a serious crime, and yet as far as I can tell, no one in the country, from the Prime Minister on down, has been able to say anything bad about him. Me included.
Robinson came out as the country's first openly gay MP in 1988, but he had championed gay rights and a host of other left-wing causes in the decade before that, and ever since. The fortunes of the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) to which he belongs have waxed and waned in federal politics, but we voters of Burnaby have re-elected him not only because he sticks to his principles—even those that some who vote for him might disagree with—but also because he has always worked relentlessly for the interests of the people in his riding.
Our little Switzerland
My wife and I have a jokey catchphrase about him: "Svend tables the cheese bill." Several years ago, Health Canada was floating the idea of banning unpasteurized cheeses (you know, the good kind) as a potential bacterial hazard. Svend made a point of opposing the idea, and small crusades like that are one reason he appeals to the people who live here.
He has also, I admit, had the luxury of never being in government, and thus never having had to implement his principles in policy. And we Burnaby residents have been able to claim Switzerland-like uninvolvement in federal scandals: "Eh, whatever, we voted for Svend." (Okay, it's a pretty activist little Switzerland, but all analogies break down somewhere.) But, in the end, the periphery is where he has made the best of himself.
Whatever the reasons for his thievery, Svend is not running from the consequences. He has taken a leave from his job and stepped down (at least temporarily) as a candidate in the next election. If that election comes soon, as it might, he will not be on the ballot this time around, for the first time in a quarter century.
A stronger path
I complained here in January 2003 that B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell should have stepped down when he was caught driving very drunk in Hawaii. He did not, and while he apologized and was obviously sad and contrite, I'm still puzzled that most voters forgave him so easily.
Robinson (if his account is complete and accurate) is following a stronger path: it's as if Premier Campbell had not been pulled over, but arrived safely at his destination, yet felt so guilty about his crime that he turned himself in for a breathalyzer test anyway, while also taking a leave and stepping down as a candidate in the next election.
In other words—again, assuming his story is the truth—even in a moment of great personal failure, Svend Robinson shows every sign of being a man of principle and integrity. He said, quite clearly and without equivocation, "I have failed." If he feels well enough and wants to run in an upcoming election, I'd vote for him again. I hope I get the chance to.