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Vaughn Palmer: Math didn’t work for Selina Robinson to stay in cabinet

Opinion: Comments about Palestine have killed the career of an able cabinet minister, as Robinson says she won’t seek reelection

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VICTORIA — The day began with beleaguered cabinet minister Selina Robinson saying the kind of thing she ought to have said last week after her ill-advised comments on Palestine.

“My words were inappropriate, wrong and I now understand how they have contributed to Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism,” she said in a statement.

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She also owed an apology to B.C.’s Indigenous community for an unfortunate aside where she linked land use disputes here to the situation in the Middle East.

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“I know that my comments have additionally caused pain, including among Indigenous communities, for perpetuating harmful narratives of colonialism. That was wrong and I am deeply sorry.”

Still, she was determined to repair the damage.

“I will be taking part in anti-Islamophobia training to more deeply understand the concerns that have been expressed to me,” she vowed. “I am committed to making amends, learning from the pain I have caused and doing whatever I can to rebuild relationships.”

Robinson’s statement deliberately echoed the language used by Premier David Eby at a news conference on Friday.

The premier declared point blank that Robinson’s words — “wrong, unacceptable” — had harmed a vulnerable community, the Palestinians.

She had divided the community and abused her power as a cabinet minister. She had violated his standards and expectations for ministers in his government.

Yes, she’d apologized. But she had more work to do to “try” to repair the damage done.

The premier reiterated the latter half a dozen times, signalling that she was on probation and on a short leash.

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Robinson’s attempt at rescuing herself by echoing the premier’s language back to him came too late.

Calls for her resignation were mounting. The New Democrats learned they were not welcome at some mosques so long as Robinson was in cabinet. The party cancelled a $150-a-ticket fundraising dinner in Surrey on Sunday night, citing concerns that the protests could get out of hand.

On Monday, Robinson’s statement of contrition was still circulating when the government called off a major housing announcement, realizing that the only questions from the media would involve the fate of Selina Robinson.

Then at 1:30 p.m. the premier announced that she was out as minister of post-secondary education.

selina robinson
Selina Robinson Photo by ETHAN CAIRNS /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Nothing to do with the 11,000 signatures on a petition calling for her ouster, or the usual suspects braying for her head and now able to claim her as a trophy, Eby assured reporters.

Not even that cancelled fundraiser was a factor in the decision — as if that were a thing that could sway a party leader in an election year.

So what did lead the premier to change his mind about letting Robinson remain at the cabinet table?

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“The amount of work she has to do to rebuild trust,” said Eby, and this at a time when there is much to do in her ministry. “The math doesn’t work.”

He and Robinson do have a history of differences.

When she was finance minister and he was minister of housing in the John Horgan government, they disagreed on Treasury Board, the cabinet’s budget-making committee. Horgan eventually removed Eby from Treasury Board, concluding it was either that or replace the finance minister.

When Horgan stepped down, Robinson briefly mulled seeking the leadership. She decided to sit it out and remained neutral while the NDP caucus lined up behind Eby.

When Eby became premier, he replaced Robinson as finance minister, relegating her to post-secondary education and future skills.

But even as Eby eased her out Monday, he sang her praises.

She’d stood up for the Jewish community after the Hamas attacks and a wave of antisemitism. She was a bulwark of support for the LBGTQ community.

She was tough, she was brave, an experienced, able politician.

Eby even claimed he would welcome Robinson as a candidate for the NDP in the next provincial election.

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It had me thinking. If this is how the premier treats a minister he admires, what would he do to one he actively dislikes?

Eby insisted that he and Robinson agreed she had to go: “We reached the decision together.”

Yet the other half of the reputed exercise in joint decision making was nowhere to be seen. Robinson was taking some private time to “catch her breath” the premier told reporters.

File photo: Premier David Eby speaks during a press conference in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, October 5, 2023.
File photo: Premier David Eby speaks during a press conference in Victoria in October 2023. Photo by CHAD HIPOLITO /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Eby was still in the news conference when Robinson’s second statement of the day arrived, by email, to provide the premier with cover for his claim of joint decision making.

“Together, we decided it’s best for me to step aside as minister of post-secondary education and future skills,” said Robinson, performing one last service for the party she’d represented in the legislature since 2013.

She added. “While I had previously decided not to run again in the next election, I remain committed to my constituents for the remainder of my term.”

Even a good soldier like Robinson could not maintain the pretext that she still imagined a future in David Eby’s government.

Nor, for that matter, did Eby.

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When a reporter asked if he could imagine Robinson earning her way back to the cabinet table, the premier said he didn’t want to speculate.

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