Pallister deflects from his Costa Rican tax amnesty with unsupported insinuation his rival hasn’t paid taxes

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister insinuated the leader of the Manitoba NDP committed tax evasion before backtracking Thursday at a news conference where he was again questioned on his taxes.

Pallister tried to shift the focus from his own taxes to those of NDP Leader Wab Kinew, after CBC News reported Thursday the premier received a tax break on money he owed the Costa Rican government. He didn’t disclose the tax amnesty when he showed proof he paid his taxes in 2019.

The premier said there had been accusations from the NDP that Kinew didn’t pay his taxes.

“I’m simply asking the question, if it’s fair to ask questions about my taxes and go back as far as 2008 … half a decade prior to the time, or close to that, that I came back into provincial politics, why wouldn’t questions be asked of Mr. Kinew about his?” Pallister said.

“He hasn’t given any evidence that he paid his taxes,” the premier said. “I’m not suggesting he didn’t … I’m suggesting he hasn’t given any evidence that he has.”

Pallister’s office confirmed the premier was speaking about the 2017 NDP leadership race, in which Steve Ashton, a former leadership contender, challenged Kinew, his rival, to produce his tax returns, which he did.

Kinew was never accused publicly of failing to pay his taxes, as Pallister wrongly suggested on Thursday.

Recurring tax questions

The premier has been dogged by questions surrounding his taxes for years, particularly over his Costa Rican vacation home.

More recently, the scrutiny focused on whether he qualified for and paid a “luxury tax,” since he had failed to reassess the value of his property earlier.

On Thursday, CBC News reported that Pallister took part in a tax amnesty program in 2018. The program forgave upwards of 80 per cent of penalties on the taxes he owed and all the interest.

The tax amnesty was never disclosed when Pallister conducted two interviews with The Canadian Press in 2018 and 2019 on the luxury tax he allegedly owed.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said he wasn’t aware of the amnesty program and it was offered to him automatically. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Nearly five months after CBC inquired, Pallister said he had no knowledge of the program.

“Amnesty apparently was offered blanket,” he told an unrelated news conference Thursday. “I specifically want to assure Manitobans, I didn’t ask for any special treatment, I never would.”

He said the reporter’s inquiry gave him licence to inquire about Kinew’s finances. “I haven’t seen any investigative questions being asked,” Pallister said.

The premier was describing that his “tax history going back many years has been deemed fair game by both the opposition and the media,” Blake Robert, the premier’s director of media relations, said in a statement.

“While he has welcomed questions on this topic, the premier believes that in the interest of fairness and transparency to Manitobans, the same level of historic scrutiny should be applied to other party leaders including Mr. Kinew.”

After question period Thursday, where Pallister said it is an honour to pay taxes, Kinew accused the premier of trying to divert attention.

“It’s a pretty desperate deflection from the premier,” he said.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the premier made accusations about his taxes as an attempt to distract from questions surrounding the taxes he pays. (Kevin King/The Canadian Press)

The matter over Pallister’s taxes wouldn’t be an issue if he covered his unpaid taxes and answered questions about them, and any tax breaks, as soon as he knew, Kinew said.

“Put the issue to rest so you could focus on what matters to the people of Manitoba: fighting the pandemic, getting the vaccine rollout done right.”

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the tax system wrongly caters to people with high incomes who are able to “turn themselves into a corporation.” He said Pallister owns a holding company and Kinew has an incorporated business. 

Pallister and his wife purchased the Costa Rica property, which according to design plans has a 3,400-square-foot main bungalow, in 2008.