October 18, 2017

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Can't hide forever in Costa Rica

Pallister keeps doubling down on his deceptions -- to his detriment

Jason Franson / The Canadian Press Files</p><p>Supporters should seriously ask themselves: would Brian Pallister tolerate the same kind of behaviour from any other member of his cabinet or caucus? </p>

Jason Franson / The Canadian Press Files

Supporters should seriously ask themselves: would Brian Pallister tolerate the same kind of behaviour from any other member of his cabinet or caucus?

Premier Brian Pallister may be running, but he will not be able to hide from the mess he continues to make for himself.

Remarkably, Pallister has been incommunicado for more than a week after new details of his leisurely vacation work ethic were revealed by a freedom of information request filed by the opposition New Democrats.

Email and telephone records obtained by the NDP showed that when the premier was at his now infamous Costa Rican vacation home last summer, he had almost no contact with his staff back in Winnipeg. And what contact there was came via a private cellphone and email account registered to Pallister’s wife, Esther.

The revelations are important for two reasons.

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Premier Brian Pallister may be running, but he will not be able to hide from the mess he continues to make for himself.

Remarkably, Pallister has been incommunicado for more than a week after new details of his leisurely vacation work ethic were revealed by a freedom of information request filed by the opposition New Democrats.

Email and telephone records obtained by the NDP showed that when the premier was at his now infamous Costa Rican vacation home last summer, he had almost no contact with his staff back in Winnipeg. And what contact there was came via a private cellphone and email account registered to Pallister’s wife, Esther.

The revelations are important for two reasons.

First, because using your wife’s private email and phone is really not an acceptable practice for a man who is charged with running an entire province.

And second, because the records directly contradict claims by Pallister and members of his government earlier this year that all his visits to Costa Rica are "working vacations" and he was in constant, secure contact with key staff so he could continue to provide leadership on any major issues or incidents that arose.

"I’m accessible every day and no more than a phone call away and no more than a day away from Manitoba," Pallister told reporters in Toronto last January, adding he works "90 per cent of the time" he is in Costa Rica. Other cabinet ministers weighed in with claims Pallister was always reachable while in Costa Rica and "is very much engaged in all aspects of government" when he is vacationing.

That all turns out to be fundamentally untrue.

Yes, it is true Pallister has access to both mobile and landline telephones and email so he can remain in constant contact with staff in Winnipeg.

But no, it appears he rarely makes use of any of that technology, preferring to leave his government in the hands of others while he is on vacation.

Tory insiders claim the issue of telephone and email contact is a red herring. The insiders say Pallister spends all of his time on vacation reading and studying up on pressing issues of the day. And while that may be true, it is simply implausible to suggest any premier can take off two weeks to read background files and still be fulfilling his obligations as premier.

Since this information became public, supporters and detractors have engaged in robust debate about whether Pallister deserves all the time he spends in Costa Rica and whether his lack of contact with the home office is even relevant. However, what Pallister deserves in terms of the length and nature of his vacations is hardly the issue here.

The real issue is that right now, just 18 months after he became premier and two-and-a-half years before he seeks re-election, Pallister has arguably become the single greatest threat to the viability of his own government.

Rabid partisans will rage at this suggestion, but in their haste to defend the premier they should ask themselves one important question: would Pallister tolerate the same kind of performance from any other member of his cabinet or caucus?

From the very beginning of the media and public interest in Pallister’s Costa Rican getaways, he has been evasive to the point of dishonest. It started back in 2014 when, as opposition leader, he decided to remain on vacation in Costa Rica during severe summer flooding in western Manitoba, which prompted the NDP government to declare a state of emergency.

When confronted about his whereabouts, Pallister denied he was in Costa Rica and claimed he was at a family wedding out west. When records were produced during the 2016 provincial election showing he had been in Costa Rica the whole time, he apologized and said he was just trying to protect his family’s privacy.

You would think that getting caught in a fib like that would be a life-altering experience for any politician. It does not, however, seem to have made much of an impression on Pallister.

Forced to now admit how much time he was spending in Costa Rica, the focus of his political enemies turned to what he was doing while he was there. Again, confronted with a potentially embarrassing revelation, he doubled down on the fib.

It’s important to note at this point that Pallister’s behaviour as premier on vacation is really not that different from what he did as opposition leader on vacation.

Back before he won a convincing majority mandate, Pallister was renowned in Tory circles for disappearing for weeks at a time to his Costa Rican vacation property. And while he was there, he had little or no contact with staff back in the legislature. It got to the point where, party sources confirmed, nobody in his office knew where he was or when he was coming back to work. Indeed, public records from Costa Rica showed Pallister spent an extraordinary 240 days in that country from 2012 to 2016.

Has Pallister changed his ways in any meaningful fashion? In this, his second year as premier, Pallister seems to have pared down the amount of time he is spending in Costa Rica. And his government has passed new guidelines that prohibit high-ranking government officials from using private phones or email accounts for official communication.

But all of that reformed behaviour doesn’t add up to much if the premier still insists on taking his hands off the wheel of government for a week or two at a time when on vacation. That kind of behaviour doesn’t inspire the people he leads nor does it curry loyalty with voters. It is behaviour that is simply not premierial.

And then there is the premier’s predisposition to back up a fib with another fib. How much time Pallister spends in Costa Rica — and what he does there — would be a minor footnote to his first term in government if not for the fact he continues to get caught in repeated dishonesty.

Costa Rica has now become the most important chink in the premier’s political armour, one that will provide great opportunities for the opposition when the next provincial election rolls around in 2020.

And the only person Pallister can blame for that is Pallister.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Dan Lett.

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