Bratina picked the wrong hill to die on

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Bob Bratina will probably go down in history as the first politician who quit because his own government put too much money into his riding, writes Sheila Copps.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 24, 2021.

Hamilton-area Members of Parliament from all parties applauded a $1.4-billion infrastructure investment announced last week.

The investment into a light rapid transit project in the city was announced by the prime minister himself as part of a $15-billion rapid transit spending package designed to battle climate change. It didn’t hurt that Canada’s labour minister, Filomena Tassi, and Canada’s infrastructure and communities minister, Catherine McKenna, are both natives of Canada’s ninth city and vocal proponents of going green. There was only one outlier in the near unanimous chorus of support: that came from Hamilton East-Stoney Creek Member of Parliament Bob Bratina, who announced his future resignation, claiming he was not consulted on the project.

Bratina will be eligible for a partial pension in November, so it was not surprising that his protest exit did not take effect immediately. National commentators jumped on his retirement, reiterating the claim that the government in Ottawa is simply not listening. But those chroniclers failed to mention that the project is currently supported by all other local Members of Parliament from three different parties.

Bratina insisted the last straw was that he was not consulted on the route or the decision. In the past two elections, Bratina ran on the Liberal platform, which included a widely publicized promise to invest in public transit in all parts of the country.

Bratina will probably go down in history as the first politician who quit because his own government put too much money into his riding.

The other inexplicable element of Bratina’s position is that he says any light rail system should go north-south, not east-west. That route would ensure that his riding in the lower city is completely excluded from any light rail access.

Bratina claims that developers are promoting the east-west route but offers no evidence to back up his claim. In fact, developers lined up in the last municipal election to oppose the rapid transit plan, and their chosen candidate was handily defeated by incumbent mayor Fred Eisenberger. The city election turned into a referendum on the rapid transit option, and Eisenberger won by more than 22,000 votes.

Those who claim that Bratina is reflecting the will of the people obviously don’t follow Hamilton politics very closely. If they did, they would probably know that another reason looming large for Bratina was his repeated statement during the last election that he was running for the last time. Bratina is 77, and his wife Carol has been patiently hoping for a happy retirement.

In addition, a 2019 meltdown in his office where he reportedly told local steelworkers’ union representatives and pensioners to get out and cursed at them has not been lost on his New Democratic Party opposition. The next election would have been tough, as steelworkers planned to plaster the riding with social media tapes of the Bratina expletives. Given the area is home to the largest number of steelworkers in the country, that could have been problematic.

What is most unfortunate about Bob’s kamikaze mission is that this light rapid transit project will be the single most important investment in the east end of Hamilton by any government in the history of our country. It will guarantee urban revitalization, with a line starting at McMaster University in the west and wending its way to the former city limits at the old border of Hamilton and Stoney Creek. That means real estate values will surge, and many expat Torontonians, who are already moving to Hamilton to take advantage of robust housing stock and the arts-renaissance in the downtown core, will accelerate their migration.

Hamilton has become quite a magnet for film and television. The Oscar-winning film, Shape of Water, was filmed there as is The Handmaid’s Tale. Just last week a Disney movie began production. A multimillion-dollar waterfront redevelopment will simply add to the appeal of a city that has more Victorian architecture per capita than any place in Canada.

It would have made sense for Bratina to back the east end investment. That’s where he has spent his whole life. But for years, he has been opposed to rapid transit. He is already musing publicly about running again for mayor to fight the deal.

Bratina was a popular mayor before entering the federal arena. But he does not have the backing of Hamiltonians on this one. Instead, last week’s announcement is a winning issue for the Liberals.

Too bad Bob couldn’t see it that way.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.