'We could have done better,' Manitoba premier admits over use of personal emails for government business
Brian Pallister speaks to media for the 1st time about using his wife's email account
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister admits his government "could have done better" regarding the decision to communicate government business through his wife's personal cellphone and email.
However, the premier described his wife, Esther Pallister, as his guardian and "barrier-keeper" and denied that using her personal email account was a risk to government security.
"My wife has acted as my adviser, she screens messages so that when I'm home with my family I can be home with my family, this is part of our motivation as a family," Pallister told reporters Wednesday.
"I'm not suggesting it's right or wrong. I'm telling you honestly [it's] how we have run our affairs as a family for a long, long time."
Wednesday marked the first time the media had access to the premier since CBC News broke the story that sensitive government material, including a draft budget speech and legal opinion, were sent to Esther's personal email account in order to reach the premier.
"I'll continue to acknowledge that we've made steps to correct the practice because we've recognized in hindsight that we could have done better and we're going to do better in the future," he said during the 40-minute news conference.
When Pallister was pushed on the issue, and asked whether his wife, who is not a government employee, should have access to confidential government information, Pallister dug in his heels.
"You're not questioning my wife's integrity, surely?" a defiant Pallister asked.
"She's my principal adviser and confidante in my life; she will remain so."
'We've changed that now'
Questions surrounding how the premier communicates, especially when at his vacation home in Costa Rica, have plagued the premier for months.
It began in December when it was revealed that he didn't use his government email account. The questions continued when freedom-of-information records revealed he didn't use his government-issued cellphone either.
The controversy continued when records asking for government business conducted on Esther's personal email were released to the New Democrats through freedom-of-information laws.
Pallister said that during the NDP's 17 years in power, it never established rules surrounding the use of a personal email or cellphone. His government filled that gap, he said.
"We've changed that now because we've realized that there were potential problems, as you've raised," Pallister said Wednesday.
The same day the records were released to the NDP, a policy directive was put into effect by the Pallister government, banning cabinet ministers and executive council staff from communicating via a personal device.
"That's why we're stepping up the security around the use of devices and why we're stepping up the security of document handling," said Pallister, who noted that there has never been a security leak in his government.
Pallister was also asked about his wife's email account, which has a password that could be reset by answering the security question, "What is your mother's maidan name?"
The premier said it is no longer a concern.
"You're asking me about a process that I no longer engage in. I can only tell you that we've made the necessary improvements to move to a new realm of protection and there no leaks as a consequence of the practice we engaged in," he said.
Premier 'accessible' every day
Pallister also faced questions concerning how frequently he communicates, after records obtained by the New Democrats through freedom-of-information laws showed no evidence of calls to senior staff in the summer of 2016 when he was in Costa Rica and only a handful of calls when he was there over Christmas.
A CBC I-Team investigation revealed last year that while in Opposition, Pallister spent one in five days at his vacation home in Costa Rica.
In total, the premier has spent about five weeks in the Central American country since being elected premier, according to Costa Rica entry and exit records obtained by CBC.
He has previously told reporters he was in touch "virtually every day" and he "communicates regularly."
When asked about those statements, the premier repeated that he is accessible every day, but not necessarily communicating every day.
Pallister said you can't measure the work he does based on the number of phone calls he makes or emails he sends.
"If sending emails and phone calls was your measure of effectiveness, we should have a teenager as the premier in Manitoba," he said.
"Not a day goes by that I'm not available, accessible. Not a day goes by that I'm not focused on the job of making Manitoba a better place for the people who live here.
"I have a reputation, for those who know me, a couple hundred thousand Manitobans who know me would laugh at the suggestion that I'm not dedicated and focused to the tasks I accept. I'm focused on this job every day."
Premier is 'out of touch': Opposition
NDP leadership candidate Wab Kinew described Pallister's communication style as the actions of an entitled politician.
The Fort Rouge MLA said if he was ever elected premier, he would be in touch "every single day."
"I think that we are seeing a lot revealed about the premier with all this intrigue and questions around Costa Rica," Kinew said Wednesday afternoon.
"I do feel that even in his most recent comments we are being shown that he feels very entitled and I think that Manitobans by and large prefer humility and want their leaders to embody the values of humility and integrity with their actions."
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