Politics
Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

Why The Liberal Party Dumped Robert Hawkins

Last spring, the YK Centre MLA was set on being the Liberal party's federal candidate. Until suddenly, he wasn't.

The race for Yellowknife Centre took a turn for the nasty last week, with suggestions of improper advertising being levelled against incumbent MLA Robert Hawkins by the media, and Hawkins in turn making accusations against his challenger Julie Green, at least two of which the CBC has reported as false or unsubstantiated.

This is not the first time election-related events involving Hawkins have given rise to apparent improprieties. Last spring, as just one example, EDGE wrote about the bizarre circumstances surrounding Hawkins’ bid to become the Liberal Party’s NWT candidate for the federal election.

In mid-April, two weeks after abruptly withdrawing from that race, Hawkins showed up in our office with a plastic envelope filled with membership forms, most of them internet-generated printouts, with cash stapled to many of them.

When asked why he had left the race, he told us: “The situation was becoming very complicated, so my wife and I sat down with our kids and we came up with this decision as a family.”

Prompted by the CBC story last week, we decided to return to the Liberal issue to see if anyone would speak on the record about Hawkins’ withdrawal, now that the federal election has come and gone. What emerged are allegations that the veteran politician was forced to retire from the nomination race after the NWT Federal Liberal Association decided that he had bent or broken numerous rules. According to a well-placed NWT Liberal Party insider, the nomination committee in charge of greenlighting candidates gave him an ultimatum: either withdraw from the race quietly, or be forced out and have his improprieties made public.

That NWT Liberal Party insider has detailed knowledge of the events surrounding Hawkins’ bid for candidacy. We’ve granted them anonymity, due to concerns that they could lose their job for speaking to the media about this. But we’ve done due diligence and checked, on the condition of anonymity, each point of our source’s story with two other party insiders with knowledge of the events. Every statement we have published has been confirmed by at least one of them.

We have tried reaching Hawkins numerous times by phone, email, text and social media, and we have put the allegations directly to him. He has not responded.

Running roughshod over rules

Hawkins’ abrupt departure from the race on April 2nd came as a surprise. Had he been forced out, or had he simply decided his future lay in territorial rather than federal politics? For outside observers, it was unclear, and neither Hawkins nor the Liberal Party were particularly forthcoming with an explanation.

Within the inner ranks of NWT Liberals, however, the resignation had been a long time coming. According to our source, by the time the final jump-or-be-pushed ultimatum was given, the nomination committee had a list of grievances that had built up over several months.

“What I know is we had 11 or 13 grounds on which he had violated any number of things: his Liberalist [the party’s membership database] agreement; the contract he signed when he submitted his papers; his threats… to the party,” says our source. “There are some of those which individually would not have been enough, but several of them were enough on their own to say no” to him getting greenlit as a party candidate.

Alarm bells about Hawkins started going off in the fall of 2014, says our source. Earlier in the summer, he’d been acclaimed as chair of the fundraising board at the association’s AGM, giving him access to the Liberalist database, which contains contact information and donation history for every party member in the region.

“When you get access to Liberalist, you electronically sign an agreement that you’ll use it for the purposes you’re granted it for, and not any other purpose,” says our source. “If you have access to it for one purpose [i.e. as a board member], you can’t use it for another [i.e. to campaign for nomination].”

By early November, after it had become clear that Hawkins was planning to run for candidate nomination, the board had begun to receive complaints about fishy phone calls to party members.

“He was calling people, [and] when soliciting their support he was making reference to the length of their period with the Liberal Party or their donation history, that kind of thing, information which you can only get from Liberalist.”

This “use of it for his campaigning stuff was a violation of his contract,” says our source.

Our source tells us the association’s president began communication with Hawkins asking for his resignation from the board and relinquishment of his Liberalist privileges, as per the association’s rules. Multiple emails were sent to Hawkins over several weeks, to which they say he did not respond. He finally stepped down from the board on Nov. 26, 12 days after his official declaration. But not before an alleged phone conversation with the president during which he threatened to go to the media, if he was booted from the board, with accusations that the Liberal nomination process was biased against him.

F for forms

Our source says that complaints about calls apparently informed by Liberalist information continued even after Hawkins relinquished his database privileges, suggesting that he was “getting the information based on Liberalist printouts” acquired prior to his exit from the board.

But that wasn’t all; the rule-bending appears to have continued as Hawkins sought to sign up members to support his campaign.

The Liberal Party has strict rules surrounding membership forms to prevent money from being stolen or prospective candidates from paying out of their own pocket for people to sign up. Prior to being greenlit, a prospective candidate can only use forms sent to them by the Ottawa office or given to them by the local riding association. Internet forms, which are difficult to track, can’t be used until someone is greenlit, and even then, cash can never be used as payment method with this type of form.

Hawkins seems to have followed neither of these rules. When he came into EDGE’s office in mid-April with a plastic envelope full of completed membership forms, most of them were internet-generated forms with cash attached to them.

One of the downloaded membership forms, with cash attached, that Hawkins brought to EDGE’s office in April

He claimed at the time he’d been given permission to flout the rules during a phone call in October with two officials in Ottawa. For the April story, EDGE called the party’s central office and was told by a source close to the issue: “Nobody here recalls saying something to that effect to that candidate… A conversation did happen, but nobody remembers telling him he could not follow the rules.”

“He can’t remember that he didn’t suggest it, either,” Hawkins told EDGE when we informed him of the party’s response.

As there’s no recording of the conversation, it’s impossible to know for certain whether Hawkins’ side of the story is true. However, as one of our corroborators for this story put it: changing the rules to give someone this kind of permission “would have to be a voted resolution at the national board… It would be impossible for anyone in the Liberal party to tell him to break the rule… not even Justin Trudeau has the authority to waive that rule.”

Hawkins claimed at the time that “everyone knew [about his use of the forms], and in no way was I stopped. I don’t believe in any way I’ve done anything wrong… [the Liberal association members] knew all along about the process.”

“We knew he was breaking it all along,” responded our source, when this quote was read to them. “We knew he was ignoring the rules. He didn’t give a damn about them. He knew he was violating them and we were trying to stop him and he refused.”

When the time finally came for the ultimatum, the nomination committee had all the above information. The choice, our source says, was clear:

“Put together, there was no way he could be allowed to run. It was too risky for the party… [It was clear] he had every intention to continue to violate rules and laws, and that would come out in the election and that would be really bad for the party.”

Still pushing boundaries

Why publish this now? To borrow a phrase, ‘because it matters.’ Hawkins is generally regarded as an MLA who works hard for his constituents. However, when it comes to elections, he seems to have a propensity to play loose with the rules that are meant to ensure democratic contests are fair. There have been accusations of rule bending or breaking ever since his first run in 2003. And while, over the years, Elections NWT dropped several of these charges after investigations, there’s no other MLA who gets into hot water with such regularity. See here and here, for example. And as last week’s CBC story pointed out, the trend appears to be ongoing.

Ahead of the publication of the CBC story, Hawkins took to social media to claim that his failure to identify Zoe Angelica Pacunayen, who appeared in an advertisement speaking about Hawkins and Aurora College, as a former employee was simply a “typo.” He did not, however, mention that Pacunayen, identified in the advertisement as a “Downtown Resident and Student,” in fact lives in Vancouver, and has been attending UBC since 2012.