Rod Phillips has resigned as Ontario’s finance minister after his Caribbean vacation, a trip he took despite months of advisories from the federal and provincial governments against travelling during the coronavirus pandemic.
Premier Doug Ford said on Thursday he accepted Mr. Phillips’s resignation, hours after Mr. Phillips said upon arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport he hoped to stay on and regain the confidence of Ontarians.
“At a time when the people of Ontario have sacrificed so much, today’s resignation is a demonstration that our government takes seriously our obligation to hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Mr. Ford said in a statement.
Mr. Phillips’s sojourn in St. Barts, a luxury island in the Caribbean, rattled his colleagues in the Progressive Conservative caucus and his fellow cabinet ministers, who have been defending the government’s COVID-19 restrictions for months. After his resignation, Mr. Phillips said, “Travelling over the holidays was the wrong decision, and I once again offer my unreserved apology.”
This week, federal officials continued to urge Canadians not to go abroad, as a more contagious variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads around the world. Mr. Phillips returned as Ontario reported a record 3,328 new COVID-19 cases, and 56 deaths.
President of the Treasury Board Peter Bethlenfalvy was sworn in as Finance Minister on Thursday and will deliver the government’s 2021 budget. He will serve in both roles, Mr. Ford said.
Mr. Phillips leaves as finance minister five months after Bill Morneau departed from the federal post. The province and Ottawa will release crucial budgets next spring that will plot their plans for recovery from the effects of COVID-19 on the health care system and the economy.
Mr. Phillips – who has been seen as an effective and capable communicator within the Ford government – will stay on as MPP for the Toronto-area riding of Ajax. Those close to him say his political career is far from over.
“In all the criticism Rod faced over the last few days, no one said he wasn’t a great minister of finance. Because he was,” said Laryssa Waler, Mr. Ford’s former executive director of communications and a principal at strategic communications firm GT and Co.
“I wouldn’t count him out from a political comeback. Not by a long shot.”
Mr. Phillips’s political fall began on Tuesday, after it was revealed he and his wife travelled on what he called a “previously planned personal trip” to St. Barts on Dec. 13. His office also confirmed that he travelled to Switzerland in August, returning on Aug. 31, and quarantined upon his return. Mr. Phillips appeared at a press conference with the Premier on Sept. 14.
On Wednesday, Mr. Ford said he knew Mr. Phillips was outside of the country about two weeks ago and takes responsibility for not ordering him back to Ontario. Mr. Ford said the finance minister did not tell “anyone” he was leaving.
When asked at the airport if he tried to hide his trip from the Premier, Mr. Phillips told reporters Mr. Ford has “far more important things to do than worry about the travel of his ministers or the people who work for him,” and the blame is his alone.
During his absence, content posted to Mr. Phillips’s social media suggested he was still in the province, including a prerecorded Christmas Eve video by a roaring fire.
Mr. Phillips said on Thursday it was not his intent to deceive anyone, and said most politicians prerecord social-media content and he did so to promote Ajax businesses, COVID-19 support for businesses and as a holiday greeting to his constituents.
Even U.S. entertainment website TMZ acknowledged the Canadian political ordeal, tweeting, “He posted this Christmas Eve video, sat at his fireplace, sipping eggnog – when he was really on a Caribbean beach,” with a photo from the video and an article about the event.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath accused Mr. Ford of helping keep Mr. Phillips’s vacation hidden from the public.
“Doug Ford knew about Rod Phillips’s trip to St. Barts two weeks ago. Not only did Ford not fire him then, he helped him keep the trip a secret. Phillips’s resignation from cabinet today is not because of Phillips’s vacation, it’s because they got caught,” she said in a statement.
Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said Mr. Phillips “rightly resigned,” but that Mr. Ford should also face consequences “for this complete failure in leadership.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory, who is a friend of Mr. Phillips, said his resignation is a recognition that he made a “significant error in judgement and that the rules put in place to keep us safe must apply to everyone.”
Mr. Bethlenfalvy is Mr. Ford’s third finance minister in less than three years. The first, Vic Fedeli, was shuffled out and replaced with Mr. Phillips after the government’s inaugural budget met stinging criticism over cuts and communication issues.
Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), thanked Mr. Phillips for his work, while criticizing his government’s pandemic policies.
“Even in moments where CFIB was very critical of Ontario’s punishing COVID lockdown measures or the lack of provincial support for small businesses, Minister Phillips always made himself available to discuss and debate the government’s approach,” Mr. Kelly said.
The Globe and Mail contacted every cabinet minister in Canada at the federal and provincial level to ask about international travel during the first and second wave of the pandemic.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not travelled abroad during the pandemic, his office said on Wednesday.
In British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, no ministers said they had travelled internationally since March 18. In Saskatchewan, two ministers have been abroad, one to sell a property in California and the other to visit a gravely ill close relative. In Quebec, one cabinet minister is in Peru visiting their spouse and to deal with an immigration issue, a spokesperson said.
Replies are still outstanding from a number of ministers in each jurisdiction.
Of the four ministers who replied in Alberta, three stated that they were at home during the holidays, but did not address international travel prior to that. One of those ministers was Tracy Allard, minister of municipal affairs. On Wednesday, she was asked whether she had travelled abroad after Sept. 1 or March 18 and if so, to explain the reason.
Her press secretary, Justin Marshall, replied: “The minister is at home, mostly relaxing but with some work too.”
When asked to address the questions about travel during the first and second waves, the minister did not reply. Later, CBC reported that Ms. Allard recently vacationed in Hawaii. The minister had still not responded on Thursday evening to The Globe’s follow-up or inquiries about the CBC report. The Alberta NDP has called on Ms. Allard to resign.
With a report from Robyn Doolittle in Toronto and Canadian Press
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