The Federal Parties Have Their Eyes on Hamilton
— and its Three Open Seats in the Next Election

OTTAWA—Decisions to retire by three of Hamilton’s five members of Parliament — a Liberal, a New Democrat and a Conservative — have created the conditions for a political fight that none of the parties can afford to lose.

And that’s expected to put local issues front and centre whenever the next federal campaign begins.

Conservative David Sweet, Liberal Bob Bratina and New Democrat Scott Duvall each faced considerable challenges from rivals in the 2019 election.

Now that each has declared he will not seek re-election, there is far more room for those challengers to turn those gains into a win.

“No incumbents is significant,” said Laura Babcock, president of Powergroup Communications and host of the OShow, a Hamilton current affairs TV program. “It sets it up for a fight.”

Most of the fight will be between the Liberals and New Democrats.

Bratina said this week he won’t run again for the Liberals in Hamilton East-Stoney Creek because he disagrees with his government’s decision to contribute $1.7 billion towards light-rail transit. He’d long been opposed to the project, which has been debated since 2007 in the city, and observers said his reluctance now wasn’t entirely surprising.

Still, it was an unusual move for a sitting MP to thumb his nose at a sizable pre-writ gift, one that any of his colleagues would have presented as proof on the campaign trail that they can deliver results for their riding.

In the 2019 campaign, the New Democrats had tried to unseat Bratina by arguing the opposite, highlighting among other things a strained relationship with steelworkers, a dominant force in the riding.

Their unions mobilized hard behind the NDP, but Bratina still eked out a win.

Nick Milanovic, who ran for the NDP in Hamilton East-Stoney Creek in 2019 and expects to do so again this time, thinks the win can be chalked up to the incumbency effect.

The Conservatives spooked voters by suggesting if they cast a ballot with the NDP, there would be a coalition government, Milanovic said.

“People went with sitting MPs, and they tended to go harder with what they’d chosen,” he said.

This time there’s no incumbent, the Liberal minority government is still grappling with COVID-19, and the NDP has a record to run on when it comes to securing pandemic supports. “It gives me more space,” Milanovic said.

While the NDP is eager to pick up what seats it can, it is also keenly aware that it can’t afford to lose any. In the 2019 campaign, its first with Jagmeet Singh as leader, the party finished with 20 fewer seats than in the 2015 race.

One riding it held on to was Hamilton Mountain, which has voted orange since 2006.

In 2019, it turned into a bit of a three-way tussle, with Duvall coming out on top, slightly increasing his vote count over his Liberal challenger.

But in March he announced he wasn’t running again, citing a desire to spend more time with family.

The candidate set to replace him is former NDP MP Malcolm Allen, who represented the nearby riding of Welland for several years.

He’s what amounts to a star candidate for the party: beloved in the movement, a former caucus chair, and someone with a strong union background.

“These troubled times call for experienced leadership. Malcolm Allen is just that man,” Duvall said in endorsing him for the spot.

But bringing in an outsider may not sit well in a region where local leaders tend to rise up through the ranks, said Babcock.

“I don’t know if that is going to work for the NDP brand,” she said.

The federal Conservatives are also at work changing their brand, with Erin O’Toole making it clear he wants to broaden the party’s appeal to union members like those in Hamilton.

The Conservatives currently hold the riding of Flamborough Glanbrook, which has become an example of how changing demographics in the Golden Horseshoe are changing the political game.

Rapid urbanization is seeing farmers fields give way to housing developments, bringing in new voters whose interests and allegiances may not jibe with a long-standing political status quo.

Sweet has been an MP in the area since 2006, first elected in what used to be known as Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale.

But as the population grew, the federal commission in charge of such things decided Hamilton needed another seat.

So in 2012, Sweet’s largely rural constituency got carved up, more urban voters were added into the mix, and Sweet saw his share of the vote begin to decline.

In 2011 he won with 51 per cent. In 2015 it was 43.5 per cent, and in 2019 it was just 39.2 per cent.

Sweet declared in January he wasn’t running again, a move that came after he was criticized for staying in the U.S. on personal business during the pandemic despite a ban on such travel.

But since announcing his decision, Sweet has joined a group of politicians calling for the end to COVID-19 lockdowns; in April, he likened pandemic restrictions to conditions in internment camps.

While he did apologize, his remarks generated an intense local backlash, said Babcock.

“The riding is still very rural,” she said. “But with no incumbent, and the one leaving with high-profile missteps, did that leave a bad taste in voters’ mouths about the Tories?”

Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz