In the grocery store on Wednesday morning, people were talking about Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips’s trip to St. Barts. “Can you believe it?” a customer asked the cashier, who shook her head in disgust. Premier Doug Ford knows better than anyone how bad that moment was for his government.
If you think that we should be much more concerned about the Ford government’s failure to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in the province’s long-term care facilities during the second wave of the pandemic, you’d be right.
If you said that what people in Ontario should really be angry about was the government’s decision to pause the vaccination program over Christmas, even as case counts climbed to new heights, you’d be correct there, too.
But what has people spitting mad is the Finance Minister’s decision to fly down to a Caribbean island that caters to the superrich, while covering his tracks with prerecorded fireside chats and insufferable tweets: “As we all make sacrifices...” “Frontline heroes...” “We need to look out for each other...” etc.
It’s not hard to understand the anger. This government told us that to fight back against the second wave of the pandemic we would have to cancel our plans to see family at Christmas and give up on celebrating New Year’s. It’s up to each of us, we were told, to stay home and bend the curve.
Meanwhile Mr. Phillips and his wife jetted off on a Christmas getaway to a place where the yachts have helicopter pads.
As anyone who watches politics knows, whether a minister resigns for a transgression depends not on the nature of the offence but instead on the importance of the minister. Mr. Phillips is a very important minister. And Mr. Ford made himself complicit in the affair when he acknowledged Wednesday that he had talked to Mr. Phillips while he was in St. Barts. So the minister might survive.
But politically, it looks just awful for both of them.
If this were a Liberal government, the scandal wouldn’t be as serious, because Liberals gonna Liberal. Former federal finance minister Bill Morneau forgot to tell the ethics commissioner about his villa in the south of France. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saw nothing wrong in enjoying a Christmas getaway on the Aga Khan’s private Caribbean island. People shrugged.
But Mr. Ford says he’s for the little guy. And he knows what the little guy thinks about the minster travelling, the Twitter deceptions, the refusal to apologize for a “previously planned personal trip” and the final, self-serving “please don’t fire me” grovel. The whole thing reeks of privilege.
Mr. Phillips was not born into privilege. He’s a Newmarket boy, the son of a sales manager and a bookkeeper, who did well through smarts and hard work. He has to know how people would react in the neighbourhood where he grew up, or in the suburban riding of Ajax that he represents.
A kid who went to public schools and who climbed his way up from a regional office of KPMG to running Shepell.fgi and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation and chairing the board of Postmedia, with stops along the way as a political adviser, should not need to be reminded of the immigrant Canadians, foreign workers and low-income families who are at higher risk of infection because they live in overcrowded conditions, are forced to take public transit and must work outside the home.
What does he have to say to them?
Mr. Phillips is not only Finance Minister; he is chair of the Ontario Jobs and Recovery Committee, which is charged with rebooting the province’s economy once the pandemic ends. That task is vital: thousands of businesses large and small are at risk. The corporate real estate and transportation sectors have been transformed by a year of people working from home. Debt and unemployment are everywhere.
To get out from under what the pandemic has done to us, Ontario will need the very best people in key positions. Mr. Phillips is such a person. Mr. Ford may decide to keep him on.
But we know what the cashier in the grocery store thinks. If it were up to her, he’d be out on his keister tomorrow.
Other than that, Minister, how was your vacation?
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