Pallister's dropped calls: Manitoba premier remains mum on how he communicates while abroad

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says security concerns are the reason he won't reveal how he communicates. That answer may not satisfy many.

Brian Pallister's answers on how he communicates from Costa Rica aren't making a connection

Premier Brian Pallister says he won't reveal how he communicates while abroad for security reasons. (CBC News)

"The gang's all here," Premier Brian Pallister declared as he strode up to his podium in the legislature this past Wednesday and slapped down a thin sheaf of papers.

A small throng of press expected Pallister's first comments in days on his communications practice while in Costa Rica, but held back to see what was on the papers.

Then carbon taxes came out of nowhere.

"I haven't had a chance to review it yet, but I did want to share a few insights … if I could," the premier said, putting his glasses on.

The document in front of the premier was a federal consultation backgrounder on carbon tax pricing, hot off the wires from Ottawa, apparently. Pallister was concerned there might be a carbon tax on the agriculture sector.

"Do the feds want to tax farmers?" a reporter asked.

"No, I haven't had a chance to review the documents … [it] just got put in my hands here a few seconds ago," Pallister said.

Another reporter asked, "Do you have objections to what's in the document?"

"Again, I haven't had an opportunity to review the document, but I wanted to come here and talk to you first. That was my priority," Pallister replied.

'I practice openness in everything'

It is nice to be a priority, so a reporter asked, "Can we get a copy?"

"I don't think so. I practice openness in everything, but I want a chance to review it before I give it to ya," Pallister said with a smile.

The moment was so odd, so strange, it felt almost surreal. One could label it an attempt to distract, were it not so blatantly obvious.

It was perhaps the last time Pallister smiled for the next 18 minutes. The best expression he could muster most times was a closer to a grimace.

Brian Pallister hates questions about his sojourns to Costa Rica. He has a white-knuckle on the podium, jaw-clenching dislike of the subject.

The recent revelation he has a number of private email accounts — combined with an Opposition freedom of information response showing he rarely, if ever, uses his government account — sparked renewed interest in how he does business while away.

After showing the press a document he hadn't read and wouldn't release and then answering some questions on public sector union legislation, the Costa Rica questions begin.

So, asked one reporter, "How do you communicate with staff and cabinet when you are in Costa Rica?"

"I'm following the same protocols that the previous government utilized. No one asked the previous government about these questions. You are asking me and I am answering in the same way they would [have] if they had been asked," Pallister said.

Brian Pallister says his security is so good there are no leaks, but is it transparent? (CBC News)
It's not unreasonable to suggest that if Gary Doer or Greg Selinger had a home in Belize or Nicaragua or El Salvador — or Costa Rica — they would have fielded questions about how they do government business there, especially if they spent significant time there instead of in Manitoba.

The cornerstone of Pallister's very vague responses to how he communicates while abroad is security. He says he has been instructed to keep it non-specific.

"[I've been told] don't outline how you communicate too clearly because it would facilitate those who might try to find out what the confidential information is that you are dealing with," Pallister told the media.

Who "those" are is a bit of a mystery. Russian hackers? Green Party activists with iPads? Rogue press people with NSA-level eavesdropping devices?

Robust protection of information

The truth, at least for the contents of any email Pallister would send or receive — whether through a government account or perhaps through (that's a made-up account so don't bother trying it) — is he has an extraordinarily robust level of protection already.

Freedom of information legislation, and the guardians who handle the requests made through it, routinely deny or redact vast chunks of content. If the content is advice to government or proprietary to a private business or has security implications, it's blacked out of any document or email. 

File an access request to government and see what gets stripped out.

Any legitimate press organization, Opposition party or private citizen would come up against the same ring fence of protection that covers communications of ministers, premiers and government staff.

But security has become Pallister's "line-in-the-sand" defence on details about how he communicates.

"It's not rocket science. I am trying to protect the confidential nature of information that comes through my office or across my desk. I am doing the very best I can in every respect to be open as I can with issues," Pallister asserts.

And his system is working, he says.

"No leaks," Pallister says. "Perfect system so far."

'I don't have to defend my work ethic'

Another overtone on this story is that somehow when Pallister is away, he does little or no work. It comes in part from the genuinely jaw-dropping amount of time he spent in Costa Rica while leader of the Opposition and his later statements that he'd spend weeks there after being elected premier.

That kind of accusation makes Pallister snap back.

"I work harder than any premier that's been around here for a long long time. I don't have to defend my work ethic to you or anyone else — and I won't," Pallister said, this time flashing teeth and an expression approaching a grin.

He may not have to defend his work ethic. Like all senior political figures, the premier probably works long, long hours (anyone who knows politics knows it is not a nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday pursuit) and takes the job with deadly seriousness.

Breaking down Pallister's communications

CBC News Manitoba

4 years ago
Breaking down Pallister's communications 5:07

He does routinely make himself available for questions though there can be, as with most political figures, gaps in that contact.

But the assertion he works harder than the Doer or Selinger or Filmon versions of premier demands metrics that could likely never be accurately assembled by counting vacation days and is, on its face, an open insult to those men.

Some (many, perhaps) will ask why the Opposition or the media would make so much hay out of this. But its roots have little to do with who is asking the questions. It is in the completeness of the answers.

Premier Pallister ended 2016 with the assertions he was an old-fashioned, pen and paper guy who eschewed technology and rarely used emails and smartphones.

Now he maintains that when he is abroad, he is in regular contact with his staff, his cabinet and, if needed, other levels of government. And he uses a variety of ways to communicate, including "various email accounts."

The content of those communications, despite being protected by law and unnamed security measures, would be at risk, according to Pallister, if he disclosed how they are made.

For someone who wishes to claim the privilege of secrecy for legitimate reasons, these are baffling and inconsistent answers and bear scrutiny.


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.