Will Brian Pallister ever get a break?
Last week, the premier was back in the hot seat, this time for the revelation that he is not, while vacationing at his estate in Costa Rica, connected to the government he leads by email. In fact, he doesn’t really use email at all, a somewhat surprising admission from a political leader in this digital age.
Allies will howl at the unfairness of this story, but the underlying point it raises is valid: can a premier still be a premier when he spends, by his own admission, up to two months away from Manitoba in a Central American paradise without using email, a critical productivity tool that most people could not live without?
Pallister responded quickly to the story, holding a number of one-on-one interviews with journalists late last week. For each interview, the premier showed off the raft of reading material he ferries back and forth to Costa Rica and stressed repeatedly that he remains in telephone contact with his office the entire time he is away.
The practical reality is that Pallister can accomplish some, maybe even most, of what he needs to accomplish via telephone alone. However, his allergy to email is only one part of this story.
The more important issue is one of perception: is Pallister projecting a reasonable, premierial image at a time when he is trying to prepare Manitobans for one of the toughest-love budgets in the last 20 years?
Critics are nearly unanimous in claiming the premier is living a lifestyle, and demonstrating a work ethic, that is in conflict with his "it’s going to be tough but we can do it if we all pull together" speech.
Pallister seems unfazed by the criticism, at least to this point. As he frequently likes to remind people in his speeches, Pallister is a self-made man who rose from modest circumstances to his current station. It is a life experience that has afforded him a fierce independence that he exercises on a regular basis.
It was that way while he was opposition leader.
After winning the leadership, Pallister rattled Tory stalwarts by purchasing a $2-million home on Winnipeg’s Wellington Crescent. Skeptics within his party argued the man-who-would-be-premier should not be flaunting his abundant wealth. They argued it was a smarter play to buy a nice, but smaller, home in the riding in which he wanted to run.
Pallister heard the criticism, but dismissed it out of hand.
There were also Tory insiders worried about Pallister’s ravenous appetite for vacations in Costa Rica. Party sources confirmed Pallister would disappear for days, even weeks, without any contact with his office. Important work was delayed, the troops left at home grumbled about how they were left to do much of the leader’s work while he was away, but Pallister never relented. He tuned out the naysayers.
He has clearly taken that attitude with him into government.
One of his first decisions as premier was to accept a pay increase for himself and his cabinet that was triggered by a loophole in the balanced-budget legislation. Pallister was elected on a campaign that stressed prudence and collective sacrifice. The pay increases were not exorbitant, but the image was unflattering and will become even more so as Pallister seeks wage concessions from civil servants to help slay the deficit.
Again, allies will claim that these are tenuous, even disingenuous, lines of attack on a man who earned his wealth through hard work and won an impressive majority government last spring.
Those allies are mostly missing the point. It’s not a matter of what you could do as premier, it’s more a matter of what you should do.
We witnessed a similar situation with former Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz, a dynamic political character in his own right who continued to enjoy electoral success despite thumbing his nose at tradition and perception.
In his days as a private businessman, Katz was really only accountable to himself.
He could spend money on whatever he wanted and come and go as he pleased. It was a work ethic he took with him to the mayor’s office.
Katz regularly disappeared from Winnipeg to enjoy the dry heat of the Arizona desert where he owned a splendid home. He rarely missed his Goldeyes baseball team play a home game in his wonderful riverfront ballpark.
In fact, the only things Katz sacrificed were community events that traditionally the mayor has attended.
His questionable work ethic came to a head in 2011 when Katz went to Phoenix rather than attend Remembrance Day ceremonies.
How unusual was this? The Free Press published a story in which we could not find a mayor from a similar or larger city who was not laying a wreath somewhere on Nov. 11.
Katz never apologized for being away, nor did he ever confirm he was in Phoenix. He could do this because — for better or worse — Katz was a politician who did not spend a lot of time worrying about convention.
Which brings us back to the premier. Pallister is no doubt aware Katz never lost an election, despite his frequent flouting of mayoral tradition and political convention. The only price he paid is being known forever in political circles in this town as "the mayor of Scottsdale."
At some point, the premier will have to start showing people he can separate the notions of what he "could" do from what he "should" do. Or he’ll suffer the indignity of being known forever as the premier who led his province into an era of diminished government services and drastically reduced spending from a veranda in Costa Rica.