While the peasants locked themselves in their homes and connected with family through windows and cellphones, Ontario’s now-former finance minister, Rod Phillips, jetted off to St. Barts. On the day he left the country – shirking recommendations against international travel that have been in place for the better part of the year – almost 2,000 people were newly diagnosed with COVID-19 in the province.
When Mr. Phillips tweeted on Christmas Eve about the sacrifices “we all” make to celebrate safely, he declined to mention that he had not sacrificed his tropical island vacation. A pre-recorded video and snapshots of him touring small businesses in his riding fortified the deception that he was indeed staying home with the masses. And when the province went into lockdown, and hairdressers and other small business owners were forced to give up their livelihoods, the minister in charge of the province’s finances and job recovery committee was thousands of kilometres away, breathing in the ocean air. It’s hard to think of an example of political hypocrisy that rivals Mr. Phillips’s in terms of arrogance, tone-deafness and sheer conceit. He resigned from his position as finance minister after returning to Canada Thursday but remains a PC MPP.
News of Mr. Phillips’s pandemic vacation resonated widely and viscerally, easily transcending the political bubble, because it touched a nerve that affects literally everyone in the country. Most political scandals necessitate some degree of explanation to properly convey why, for example, the average person should care that WE Charity was handed an exclusive deal by the Trudeau government or why Conservative objections to Liberal omnibus legislation are terribly cute. But a minister jetting off to one of the most expensive vacation destinations on the planet during a time of unprecedented suffering at home, while his own government was shaming people for venturing out to see their relatives within the same city, is an insult that requires no further explanation. Our instinct is to reflect on all the things we ourselves have given up this year and wonder why the rules don’t seem to apply to those who made them.
Mr. Phillips is not the only political leader to embrace this sort of double standard. Quebec Liberal MNA Pierre Arcand flew to Barbados for Christmas. Saskatchewan Highways Minister Joe Hargrave went to California over the holidays, he said, to finalize the sale of a property. Ontario MPP Sam Oosterhoff participated in an unmasked gathering of dozens of people in October and was obtuse enough to post photos on social media. Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu flew home to Thunder Bay from Ottawa repeatedly early in the pandemic, all while urging Canadians not to travel. Each incident functioned to erode the credibility of those urging Canadians to follow the rules – and to try the patience of those who, up until now, have been trying to do their best.
Our collective resolve has been weakening, however. Ahead of Christmas, despite warnings, a significant proportion of Canadians admitted that they were planning to gather with friends and family for the holidays. Creeping numbers of infections in various provinces are already signalling the consequences of those gatherings. And yet, Mr. Phillips’s ill-conceived jaunt to the tropics – which stands out from the rest due to his active attempts to fool Ontarians into believing he was at home – threatens to make things even worse, particularly because Ontario Premier Doug Ford admitted he knew Mr. Phillips was out of the country and didn’t ask him to return home until the news became public.
So now the Ontario government faces even more of a credibility crisis. Indeed, how can Mr. Ford implore people in the province to stay home and stay apart after initially shrugging off a cabinet minister’s international vacation? How is it fair that a restaurateur can be arrested for trying to keep his business open or a 21-year-old tasered for failing to leave a shinny rink or teens ticketed for gathering in a high school parking lot when Ontario’s Finance Minister can ignore his own government’s directives?
Mr. Phillips treated himself to an unsanctioned luxury at a time when most people are just trying to maintain their grasp of the essentials. That has made people frothing mad, naturally, but it is also precisely the type of behaviour that makes people stop listening to public-health directives. If Ontario’s Finance Minister can venture out to one airport, cross the border, land at another airport, get in a cab, arrive at a resort and have countless interactions with various people along the way, why shouldn’t you have the dinner party with just a few friends that you’ve been putting off for the better part of a year? Hope that abbreviated vacation was worth it – its consequences may resonate well beyond one demotion.
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