Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cost of political opportunists

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BRANDON -- Consider it an "opportunity cost" -- yet another situation in which politicians reap lucrative opportunities while taxpayers are stuck with the bills.

The August resignation of Brandon-Souris Conservative MP Merv Tweed to become president of OmniTrax Canada has set a series of events in motion that will cost the public more than $1 million. At the top of the list of expenses is the Nov. 25 byelection in Brandon-Souris to replace Tweed, which Elections Canada says will cost approximately $850,000 to conduct.

Retired MPs are eligible to collect a pension at age 55 if they have served at least six years in the House of Commons. Tweed is 58 and served as MP for nine years, so he qualifies to receive his pension immediately.

According to a Canadian Taxpayers Federation study, he would have received a yearly pension of $55,259 if he had served as MP until 2015. Even if his benefits were slightly less because he resigned before 2015, say to $50,000, it will total more than $1 million in taxpayer-funded pension payments if he lives to the standard life expectancy of 80.

Those benefits are indexed to inflation and are not subject to clawback to reflect the hefty salary he is now being paid by OmniTrax.

In addition to the costs flowing from Tweed's resignation, Manitoba taxpayers are also hit by Larry Maguire's candidacy to replace Tweed as the Conservative MP.

Under Manitoba law, MLAs get a "transition payment" upon leaving office. Maguire resigned as Arthur-Virden MLA on Oct. 18 and will receive a transition payment equal to his yearly MLA's salary -- $86,564.

When contacted regarding the transition allowance, Maguire indicated he will refuse to accept the payment.

That is an admirable and politically opportune position to take, but human resources staff at the Manitoba legislature have confirmed an MLA may not refuse to receive the transition allowance. If they were able to do so, it would become a political football that would result in all MLAs being shamed into rejecting the payment.

Maguire's resignation has created a vacancy in the Arthur-Virden constituency, which will require a byelection that Elections Manitoba estimates could cost as much as $250,000. The winner of that byelection will receive an annual salary of $86,564, meaning Manitoba taxpayers will effectively be paying double (the basic MLA pay plus Maguire's transition allowance) for a year.

If Maguire wins the Brandon-Souris byelection on Nov. 25, he will begin collecting the basic MP's salary of $160,200. It would mean he received a transition allowance of $2,278 per day for the 37 days he was unemployed.

If Maguire loses the Brandon-Souris by-election -- a legitimate possibility, according to a recent Forum Research poll -- he is free to run again in the Arthur-Virden byelection and would be under no obligation to return the transition allowance.

The ironies of the situation are impossible to ignore.

The Conservatives bill themselves as prudent managers of the public purse, but the ambitions of two Brandon-Souris Tories are going to cost the public more money than many taxpayers can ever dream of earning -- costs that would not have been incurred if Tweed had waited until the 2015 general election to return to the private sector.

Then there is the fact the Harper government has capped and clawed back benefits paid to seniors and veterans but has no mechanism in place to reduce the generous pension benefits received by former MPs such as Tweed, who are earning significant post-Parliament income.

If politicians and pundits wonder why Canadians are so cynical about politics and why voter turnout is on a steady decline throughout the country, this situation is a exhibit "A."

The public is weary of elected officials from all parties -- the Conservatives are not alone in this -- putting their personal interests and those of their friends ahead of the interests of the hard-working Canadians they purport to represent.

They don't begrudge a politician who moves on to greener pastures after years of service. What they resent is being forced to pick up the tab.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 A17

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