Robinson steps down after 'pocketing' jewelry

MP Svend Robinson crying at his resignation in BC

Admitting he helped himself to a piece of jewelry at a recent public sale, veteran NDP MP Svend Robinson has announced that he's taking a leave of absence from his political duties.

Struggling to choke back sob at a Vancouver news conference, Robinson, 52, told reporters he has been suffering from "severe stress and emotional pain" since a near-fatal hiking accident in late 1997.

His personal problems culminated last Friday, he said, when he engaged "in an act that was totally inexplicable."

"I pocketed a piece of expensive jewelry," he admitted. "Something just snapped in this moment of total, utter irrationality."

Robinson said that, after a "weekend of great anguish," he has gone to police with his account of the event, and is awaiting the Crown's decision on how whether he will be charged.

"I will not seek to, in any way, avoid full responsibility for my actions should charges be laid in these circumstances," Robinson said, his partner Max at his side.

In the meantime, he said he "must devote my full energy and time to recovery and healing."

For that reason, he is taking a medical leave of absence, effective immediately. And he plans to meet with party officials, "to discuss the longer term implications of this decision should an election be called while these issues remain outstanding," Robinson said, suggesting he won't be seeking re-election.

"As you can imagine, this has been a nightmare. I cannot believe that it has happened, but I am human and I have failed."

Layton says he supports Robinson

Jack Layton, the NDP's leader, held a sombre press conference later Thursday in which he said his friend had "done the right thing."

Noting Robinson was facing some huge personal challenges in the coming weeks, "I'm sure he'll see his way through it," Layton said.

He dodged questions about what would happen to Robinson's riding if a spring election were called, saying this was not a day to talk about politics. But he seemed to hold out the hope Robinson would return to Parliament some day.

"All of us wish him (Robinson) the best," Prime Minister Paul Martin told reporters in Halifax.

CTV's Craig Oliver noted similarities between this incident and another that happened in Ottawa years ago, which prevented MP Lorne Nystrom from running for the NDP leadership. Nystrom was charged, then acquitted, in 1989 for taking a package of contact lens cleaning solution from a drugstore.

"What psychologists say about these two incidents, is that people who driven and under stress and can't bring themselves to quit, they do something that drives them to quit," Oliver said.

CTV's Mike Duffy says the fact that Robinson went to police and returned the stolen item means there's a good chance that police will choose not to charge him.

"And that could pave the way for him to return to politics in as little as a month or six weeks," Duffy says.

An NDP veteran

First elected to the House of Commons in 1979, Robinson has since been re-elected in the riding of Burnaby-Douglas seven times, earning him the title of B.C.'s most senior Parliamentarian.

When he publicly declared his homosexuality in 1988, Robinson became the first openly gay member of Parliament.

Aside from his distinction as a pioneer in championing the political cause of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, Robinson is famous for his taking part in several acts of civil disobedience -- including a 1993 protest in Clayoquot Sound for which he was briefly imprisoned.

Robinson also lent his support to Sue Rodriguez -- a Victoria-area woman who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease -- as she took her fight for the right to commit assisted suicide all the way to the Supreme Court.

His outspoken advocacy of same-sex marriage and the Charter protection of gay rights, for example, have also made him a lightning rod for criticism.

He drew the ire of his own party in 2002, when he flew to Israel to support the Palestinians. Controversy swelled following his attempted meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and then-NDP leader Alexa McDonough stripped Robinson of his role as foreign affairs critic.

Currently the New Democrats' spokesperson on health and international human rights, Robinson is also a member of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, and the Sub-Committee on Human Rights and International Development.

He's been NDP Deputy House leader since February, 2003.