Premier Pallister's place in the sun

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister makes light of his travel choices as he heads to Toronto to make some speeches, but even national media scrutiny won't pull an apology from Manitoba's leader.

Manitoba premier defends lengthy absences, but misses out on what his province has to offer when away

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister spoke to the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto Friday about economic opportunities in his province. But questions from reporters focused on the time he spends in Costa Rica. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Passengers at James Richardson Airport eyed the departure screens as a blizzard earlier this week screamed through Winnipeg and started grounding flights.

You could hardly blame travellers for wondering where that very tall and very familiar-looking fellow was headed. But they didn't have to ask. Manitoba's premier has a sense of humour.

"Costa Rica, right?" Brian Pallister said as he strode by some locals trying to beat the snow squall and get to Phoenix.

Pallister may have felt at ease because this time he wasn't headed to his Costa Rica compound. He was on his way to Toronto on company business.

Oddly enough, Pallister's "we are open for business" message Friday to the Economic Club of Canada was not the first thing the Toronto media wanted to ask about when he took questions after his speech.

Costa Rican sojourns topped the list of questions.

'Get-out-of-town pass' for senior staff

Manitobans have already heard or read most of what Pallister has had to say on the subject, but a new nugget from the Toronto trip was the premier extended a get-out-of-town pass to cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats.

House in Majorca? Condo in Hawaii? Five weeks? Six? Seven, or maybe eight? Off you go. As long as it's a working vacation.

"Well totally. I think that people work remotely all the time. I work 90 per cent of the time when I am down there. I am a pretty effective manager of time," Pallister told the Toronto media scrum.

More on working remotely in a moment.

'The time that I spend in Costa Rica I am also working,' Premier Brian Pallister told the CBC in an interview. (CBC News )
If you peeked at some national columnists' recent takes on Pallister's Costa Rican getaways, your first impression might be the Portage la Prairie native's goal was dodging the cold.

Both the Globe and Mail and Maclean's magazine weighed in with earth-shattering revelations that it's cold in Winnipeg in the winter. Fortunately it was the right season; the other tired cliché​ about Manitoba out-of-town scribblers love to hang on the Keystone province wouldn't have worked, as there are mosquitoes in Costa Rica.

The point the centre-of-the-universe media were trying to make appears to be that Pallister is soaking up sun while ordinary Manitobans were freezing their Jets jerseys off.

Not that Pallister appears to give a fig about who says what about his southern journeys.

Ducking the cold and snow doesn't appear to be the impetus for Pallister's travels to Central America. In the 36 days (including weekends) Manitoba's premier took off from regular duties since being elected, he went to his Costa Rican get-away three times: once at the end of July, once in August and a most recent trip in December. 

July and August are hardly months Manitobans typically hit the road for the tropics, but it's a great time for checking out our own beaches, the cool waters of Clear Lake or perhaps taking in one of a million great summer festivals.

Pallister's seemingly blasé reaction to the fuss is consistent. Getting caught out for the fact he was in Costa Rica for one in five days during his term as leader of the Opposition did nothing to deter him from going back and forth while premier.

His defence is also consistent. He says he pretty much works all the time (90 per cent of the time while away, as he told the Toronto media). Here at home his message is the same.

"The time that I spend in Costa Rica I am also working. But I have the time to do some things that I don't have the time to do as frequently when I am here faced with the challenges of being in the office. I think that's an important thing to understand," he told CBC News last week.

Unplugged but not out of touch

Pallister is equally nonchalant about his use of technology.

He has a laptop but doesn't use it much. Ditto for a smartphone — if you are talking about texting or getting emails.

Facebook? "Not my thing," he says. 

For the record, yes, his Costa Rican digs have Wi-Fi and no, they (like his home in Winnipeg) do not include a private server, á la former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

Brian Pallister on why he prefers paper over tech

CBC News Manitoba

4 years agoVideo
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister tells CBC's Sean Kavanagh why he prefers reading on paper rather than online. 1:29

He's a paper-and-book man. Likes to mark up the pages. And does briefings and updates via phone. It's the personal touch Pallister values. Email, he says, can be misleading. 

It's not a bad followup question to ask if the premier's offer to senior staff and cabinet members to take the all time they need away includes going tech-free.

Not sorry for going away

Spend some time with Brian Pallister and some character traits emerge. He does appear to be a workaholic. When he says he works a lot — believe it. And he's stubborn. His eyes harden and his back straightens when he's challenged and you can almost sense the competitive juices from his athlete days pouring out.

Part of his reaction to the fuss over Costa Rica can probably be tracked right back to those qualities in the man. You can ask about these trips all you want, but he won't apologize.

That's why it should be no surprise that he told CBC's Power and Politics this week he's headed back to Costa Rica at the end of January. Add another two weeks to his time out of Manitoba and it should work out to around 50 days since taking office in April.

Since being elected in April, Pallister has been to Costa Rica three times. He plans to go again at the end of January. (CBC)
Political work can be a hard gig, especially at the top. Days are long, family time is in short supply and especially if you are six foot eight and hard to hide, every minute in public gets scrutinized. Pallister appears to know and accept these conditions of employment.

What he doesn't seem willing to acknowledge is that some would question how he can be so proud of his province and be so far away from it for so long.

Employers are legally required to provide vacation time and everyone deserves a break. But every day spent at his Costa Rican residence is a day Manitoba's leader is not enjoying what this province has to offer — and perhaps ironically, what he's ordered Travel Manitoba to aggressively promote.

About the Author

Sean Kavanagh

Civic affairs - city hall reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Sean has had a chance to live in some of Canada's other beautiful places (Whistler, B.C., and Lake of the Woods, Ont.) as well as in Europe and the United States. In more than 15 years of reporting, Sean has covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections, including as the CBC's provincial affairs reporter.