Brandon-Souris MP Merv Tweed is trading Parliament Hill for the Port of Churchill, leaving federal politics to run Omnitrax Canada.

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Parliament's conflict rules will allow Merv Tweed, who is quitting as a Tory MP, to call the prime minister on Day 1 of his new job at Omnitrax Canada.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Parliament's conflict rules will allow Merv Tweed, who is quitting as a Tory MP, to call the prime minister on Day 1 of his new job at Omnitrax Canada.

Brandon-Souris MP Merv Tweed is trading Parliament Hill for the Port of Churchill, leaving federal politics to run Omnitrax Canada.

The surprise move makes Tweed the second Conservative MP to step down mid-term, and revives questions about the effectiveness of Parliament's ethics rules.

Tweed, 58, has been a Tory MP since 2004 and before that, he served as a Manitoba Conservative MLA. Following the 2011 federal election, the gregarious MP ran for Speaker, losing on the fourth ballot.

His resignation from Parliament takes effect Aug. 31.

"I always said that nine or 10 years was what I was prepared to do. I served just over nine provincially and it'll be nine years federally," Tweed said Monday. "It's time for change. It's an opportunity for me and a chance to move forward in something else, and I'm excited about it."

Tweed will become president of Omnitrax Canada, which operates the Hudson Bay Railway that connects many isolated northern communities. Omnitrax also runs the Port of Churchill, which once relied heavily on grain shipments from the Canadian Wheat Board, which Tweed's government dismantled.

Omnitrax said Monday it plans to begin shipping Alberta crude oil via the railway to the port -- a controversial move after the deadly derailment in Lac-M©gantic, Que., this summer.

Until last fall, Tweed chaired Parliament's transportation committee, which dealt frequently with rail issues. More recently, he served as chairman of the agriculture committee.

According to the federal lobbying commissioner's website, Tweed was lobbied by Omnitrax last November. Ominitrax lobbyist Leo Duguay, a former St. Boniface Progressive Conservative MP, communicated with Tweed about agriculture, infrastructure and transportation.

The rules governing conflict of interest and lobbying, especially for departing MPs, are confusing and scattershot.

There are few post-employment restrictions on backbench MPs, though some rules exist for cabinet ministers and senior civil servants such as deputy ministers.

For example, during a two-year cooling-off period, a minister cannot work for a company he had "direct and significant official dealings" with during his time in cabinet.

Backbench MPs are not covered by the cooling-off rules -- a loophole that good-governance advocates such as Democracy Watch have criticized.

And, though former MPs cannot become registered lobbyists for five years, Tweed is still allowed to lobby his colleagues as long as the work represents less than 20 per cent of his job.

"He's allowed to lobby anyone he wants in the government, 20 per cent of his time, with no cooling-off period, not even one minute," said Democracy Watch spokesman Duff Conacher. "On Sept. 1, he can call the prime minister or anyone on the committee he sat with."

Asked about the optics of accepting a job with a company he dealt with as chairman of the transport committee, Tweed said he doesn't believe he's in a conflict. Tweed said he'd been contemplating a move to the private sector for a couple of months.

When asked if his role as chairman of the transport committee factored in his decision to move on to the transportation industry, Tweed said it made him "less fearful."

Tweed's appointment was hailed as welcome news by Churchill Gateway Corp. chairman Lloyd Axworthy and Barry Prentice, a transportation and logistics expert at the University of Manitoba.

Axworthy said Tweed has a wealth of knowledge about transportation and has demonstrated an ability "to work across party lines to advance Canadian communities."

Prentice also praised Tweed's knowledge of transportation issues and his ability to work with others.

"I see this as a positive move for Churchill. I think they've got a really solid individual with great credentials and a lot of connections," Prentice said.

Tweed is the latest Manitoba MP to resign mid-term. Longtime cabinet minister Vic Toews resigned earlier this summer to pursue opportunities in the private sector.

Byelections must be called within six months.

Tweed called his post as Brandon-Souris MP "the best job in the world."

"I think we've made some real positive changes in Brandon-Souris and as a national government... I'm very proud of the record that I leave," he said.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation estimates Tweed's federal pension will be worth $37,500 a year, and he will receive it immediately. Tweed is also eligible for a provincial pension.

 

-- With files from Murray McNeill

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca jaustin@brandonsun.com