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This article was published 6/1/2017 (285 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Brian Pallister appears to be a premier who doesn’t use email — a revelation raising questions about how much work he is actually doing while residing at his Costa Rica property.
Records obtained by the Free Press show for the first three months as premier, Pallister had no email communication with any of his senior political staff, including his chief of staff and director of communications.
Moreover, in response to questions from the Free Press, Pallister’s office has disclosed the premier is not receiving any documents once he has left Manitoba to spend weeks at a time in Costa Rica.
A Free Press search has found no indication Pallister has a personal government email account. There is no Brian Pallister registered in the legislature’s email database, and email@example.com is a general email account, used by staff for general communication from the premier’s office.
The Free Press repeatedly asked Pallister’s staff if he sends or receives emails, but no answer was given. There was also no answer given when asked if Pallister used a personal email account.
When Pallister’s office made clear the premier would be spending the Christmas holidays and much of January in the Central American country, the Tories went to great lengths to argue he would continue in his role as premier by maintaining regular contact with his cabinet and staff.
"It would be surprising for someone to head out of the province for weeks at a time and not have measures in place to be receiving documents securely and be up to speed on what is happening," said Minto MLA Andrew Swan, the NDP’s justice critic.
"That might have been the way it worked in the ’50s, but that is not the way it works now."
Reads briefing notes, writes documents
The Free Press asked Olivia Baldwin-Valainis, the premier’s communications director, to explain how Pallister is living up to his claim he will be working while in Costa Rica.
Baldwin-Valainis said while Pallister is away, he reads briefing notes and writes documents. However, no new documents are being sent to the premier. It is also unclear if the premier has an Internet connection in Costa Rica, as no answer was given when the Free Press asked.
"The premier’s trips to Costa Rica coincide with sessional breaks, and as such his working vacations involve a significant amount of reading of briefing notes, reports and other documents prepared for him on a wide array of government topics," Baldwin-Valainis said.
"As the premier participates in cabinet meetings in person, there is no need for secure documents to be delivered to him once he has departed the province."
In a December year-end interview with the Free Press, Pallister revealed he plans to spend roughly two months over the course of the year in Costa Rica.
"I hope we can continue to do that because I work about 60 hours a week when I am here, and I work when I am there, too," Pallister said.
Phone calls for urgent topics
An investigation by the CBC last year revealed during his time as Opposition leader, Pallister spent roughly one in five days in Costa Rica.
In a Dec. 19 interview with Global, Pallister said since he was sworn into office he has spent about four weeks in the Central American country.
An order-in-council passed May 3 put in place the mechanisms for when a premier or minister is absent — which is standard practice by all governments. When Pallister is away, the powers of the premier pass on to Justice Minister Heather Stefanson. In the event of her absence, the powers transfer to Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen.
Baldwin-Valainis said in situations where the premier’s direct input is required on urgent topics, "phone calls are arranged between the premier and senior political staff."
She pointed to the recent meeting between provincial health and finance ministers in Ottawa, where Pallister was made aware of the situation in that manner.
When Pallister returns from Costa Rica, he has prepared "numerous speeches and other items have been prepared, which are then tasked to various staff for action," she said.
No staff travel with Pallister to Costa Rica, and there are no government expenditures associated with his trips, she added.
'Not a semi-retirement position'
Royce Koop, a political studies professor at the University of Manitoba, said modern technology offers the opportunity for Pallister to work remotely and still help govern the province while in Costa Rica — as long as he uses these tools.
"You can access information remotely and direct people remotely. But there are also limits to this... there is some utility to people coming together and working together in an office, and there is usefulness to being present," said Koop, who said Pallister likely corresponds by phone frequently.
He said when Pallister is in Manitoba, having staff to facilitate communications likely compensates for him not using email.
"He can delegate effectively, and if he wants to communicate with someone... he doesn’t send an email. It just means he picks up the phone and does it. It is just a little bit more old-fashioned," he said.
"But if he is going to claim that he is going to be working remotely (in Costa Rica), then asking, ‘How you are actually going to do that remotely?,’ that is a fair question."
Officials with the NDP said former premier Greg Selinger liked to communicate by phone but did send and receive emails. Swan, who was the province’s justice minister for five years, said being a politician means you have to always be reachable and glued to technology.
"I remember being on holidays and sneaking out to the hotel to make phone calls, to receive briefings. I would receive documents by email and review them on holiday time," said Swan.
"The premier of Manitoba is not a semi-retirement position."