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Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister faces heat over Costa Rica vacation plan

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister displays some of the reports and other documents he says he carried with him on a holiday trip to his vacation home in Costa Rica, at his office in Winnipeg on Friday, Jan. 6, 2017.

Steve Lambert/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Manitoba's chain of government command has been set up to account for the reality that Premier Brian Pallister plans to spend up to two months of 2017 on a working vacation in the Central American country of Costa Rica, says the Premier's communications director.

Olivia Baldwin-Valainis said Mr. Pallister would be on the "next flight home" from Costa Rica, a journey of about 6,000 kilometres, were he needed in Manitoba, the province where he led his Progressive Conservatives to victory last April, ending 17 years of NDP government. While he'd be in transit, other ministers would handle the duties of the Premier, including the signing of documents, she said.

The assurances are part of the latest turn in the controversy over Mr. Pallister's holiday habits. In 2016, Mr. Pallister was in Costa Rica for 34 days. He plans to be there for six to eight weeks this year, his office has confirmed. All of this has placed Mr. Pallister at odds with other Canadian premiers, none of whom appear to spend as much time abroad on unofficial matters as Mr. Pallister.

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"In the event of an emergency, the Premier has already indicated he would return to Manitoba regardless of whether he was away on business or on personal travel. His orders and guidance would be able to be received by either phone or the e-mail designated for this purpose," Ms. Baldwin-Valainis said in an e-mail exchange.

But Mr. Pallister has said he prefers not to be in touch with events at home by e-mail, choosing instead phone calls and printed work documents.

"The Premier prefers face-to-face communication or phone, to e-mail correspondence and always aims to ensure that the urgent does not overtake the important," Mr. Pallister's office said, responding via e-mail statement to a series of questions from The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Pallister, attending a cabinet meeting in Winnipeg on Wednesday, was not available for an interview to explain the difference between the urgent and important, his office said when reached by phone.

As for Costa Rica, "The Premier finds it effective to spend time away from sessional responsibilities of his office in a space where he is able to focus uninterrupted attention on policy documents, research materials and speechwriting," his office said. "He takes a significant amount of documentation and reading material with him when he travels."

Mr. Pallister's ties to Costa Rica were highlighted in media reports ahead of the 2016 provincial election. However, they did not deter voters from electing the PCs in 40 of Manitoba's 57 seats.

Other premiers canvassed Wednesday remain in touch with their offices by computer when on vacation. Saskatchewan's Brad Wall, for example, has an iPad and an iPhone. Although equipped for access to e-mail, Mr. Pallister has been saying that he prefers to call staff and others for information. Long-distance fees are not charged to Manitoba taxpayers, his office said.

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Andrew Swan, justice critic for the NDP in Manitoba, said there's nothing wrong with Mr. Pallister taking a vacation, but it's wrong for a leader to be away for extended time without fulsome access to e-mails and documents necessary to do the job.

Mr. Swan said Mr. Pallister is standing out among his provincial and territorial counterparts, and not in a good way. "In 2017, Mr. Pallister is a complete outlier. There is not another premier in this country that would think that this is acceptable behaviour, period," he said, referring to both his association with Costa Rica and aversion to online connections.

With a tough budget coming, Mr. Swan said Mr. Pallister may be hard-pressed to expect Manitobans to accept sacrifices when he has been spending so much time abroad – especially while residents of the province have been "shovelling out from the snowiest December in living memory."

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