November 16, 2018

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Opinion

After demanding a front-page apology, it's Pallister who owes one

John Woods / The Canadian Press files</p><p>Premier Brian Pallister has been penalized for taxes owing on his vacation home in Costa Rica. Pallister failed to update the evaluation of his property as required by Costa Rica law, which allowed him to escape paying a national tax on luxury homes, he said Friday.</p></p>

John Woods / The Canadian Press files

Premier Brian Pallister has been penalized for taxes owing on his vacation home in Costa Rica. Pallister failed to update the evaluation of his property as required by Costa Rica law, which allowed him to escape paying a national tax on luxury homes, he said Friday.

When politicians are forced to reveal something embarrassing, controversial or overtly negative, they typically wait until late on Friday afternoon and then — in the parlance of backroom politics — they “take out the trash.”

It’s a well-worn and somewhat cowardly strategy to catch news media off guard and, with some luck, suppress coverage to dampen consequences. Sometimes, it actually works. Many other times, however, it only serves to make a bad situation worse.

Making a bad situation worse is the likely outcome of Premier Brian Pallister’s most recent bid to take out the trash.

On the last Friday of August, right before the Labour Day long weekend, the Canadian Press moved a story around 3 p.m. indicating Pallister owed thousands of dollars of back taxes on his luxury villa in Costa Rica.

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When politicians are forced to reveal something embarrassing, controversial or overtly negative, they typically wait until late on Friday afternoon and then — in the parlance of backroom politics — they "take out the trash."

It’s a well-worn and somewhat cowardly strategy to catch news media off guard and, with some luck, suppress coverage to dampen consequences. Sometimes, it actually works. Many other times, however, it only serves to make a bad situation worse.

Making a bad situation worse is the likely outcome of Premier Brian Pallister’s most recent bid to take out the trash.

On the last Friday of August, right before the Labour Day long weekend, the Canadian Press moved a story around 3 p.m. indicating Pallister owed thousands of dollars of back taxes on his luxury villa in Costa Rica.

The story was a bit of a surprise given that last April, Pallister refuted an exclusive Free Press report that suggested he had not paid all of his taxes in Cost Rica. In fact, it turns out he did owe taxes.

Pallister told the Canadian Press the bill amounted to about $8,000, which he has already paid.

Pallister told CP he had failed to do a regular "evaluation" of his property to see if it was subject to the luxury tax. He said he was never "advised that we owed anything on this, and actually were told we were not in this (luxury) category."

Pallister said that, as a result, "we had no reason to believe... that we would owe anything."

It’s a pretty big deal when the premier is forced to admit that, contrary to earlier assertions, he did in fact owe taxes on a property that has been a constant source of controversy since he re-entered politics. In this instance, however, no news release was issued. Pallister refused to be interviewed by any other media.

Imagine the questions we would have asked him.

Back in April, Pallister bristled at the mere suggestion that he owed taxes to anyone, anywhere. He did promise to look into the allegations to see if he had somehow missed this obligation. However, in the aftermath of our original story, he felt sufficiently aggrieved that he threatened to sue the Free Press for defamation.

The threat of legal action was an odd tactic, particularly when there was evidence to support the Free Press story in the form of local government tax records, including building permits, property assessments and published details of the threshold for the luxury tax.

Premier Brian Pallister had threatened to sue the Winnipeg Free Press after it reported his tax issues in Costa Rica.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Premier Brian Pallister had threatened to sue the Winnipeg Free Press after it reported his tax issues in Costa Rica.

In the face of this evidence, Pallister decided to go on the attack. Winnipeg lawyer Robert Tapper sent a letter to the Free Press claiming that our story had overestimated the size of Pallister’s vacation home and left readers with the "impression that Premier Pallister flouted the law of Costa Rica, ignored tax obligations and did not make tax payments that were due and owing."

To avoid a lawsuit, Tapper demanded a front-page apology and that the newspaper reveal its source on the story. In short, Pallister wanted the Free Press to admit that it was wrong about the tax arrears, even as he was unable to show any evidence to the contrary.

The big question now is whether the decision to try and hide this story in the Friday afternoon trash will dampen interest. The answer is, not likely. Instead, this shameless attempt to bury the story will only serve to draw attention to what has become merely the latest chapter in a long and winding tale about a premier with a tragic propensity for self-inflicted wounds.

Which brings us back to the issue of apologies.

At this stage, apologies are most definitely warranted, although not the kind that the premier initially envisioned.

If nothing else, Pallister owes an apology to the members of his own government for, once again, creating an unnecessary controversy that has soiled the party brand and painted its leader as a man who cannot be trusted.

This is a government that has done a lot of controversial things in its first two years in government. It has virtually frozen funding for health and public education, cut back on other government services and capped infrastructure spending and shrunk the size and scope of the civil service. All this has been done to convert Manitoba’s stubborn budget deficit into a surplus.

And there’s been more.

Pallister introduced a regime for the legal sale of cannabis. He delivered a "made-in-Manitoba" carbon tax plan. Not everyone will agree with everything the Pallister government has done over the past 26 months, but no one will accuse the premier of thinking small.

However, just when it seems like he and his team are getting a handle on running the government, the premier does something to derail his own momentum. Whether it is alleging that a "race war" was brewing between Indigenous hunters and municipal councils, or making inappropriate comments about an architect’s high heels, or fudging the details of the timing and frequency of his trips to Costa Rica, this is a leader who spends a lot of time getting in his own way.

Pallister is known as a demanding taskmaster, a man who expects great things from his team and who is unafraid of dishing out criticism if someone is not pulling his or her weight.

And that raises a second, big question.

Would this premier tolerate this kind of behaviour from any other member of his government?

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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