Ontario’s finance minister resigns after returning from Caribbean vacation

Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips has resigned after returning from a controversial Caribbean vacation while the province is under strict lockdown measures that discourage non-essential travel, Premier Doug Ford announced Thursday.

Earlier Thursday morning, upon arrival at Toronto Pearson Airport, Phillips said he would like to keep his job but would respect Ford’s decision following what the premier said would be a “very tough conversation” between the two.

“Today, following my conversation with Rod Phillips, I have accepted his resignation as Ontario’s minister of finance,” Ford said in a statement.

“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.” 

Ford said he has asked Peter Bethlenfalvy to assume the role of minister of finance and deliver the government’s 2021 budget.

He said this appointment will “help ensure economic stability in the months ahead, as we support Ontario families, workers and businesses through the COVID-19 pandemic, and as we chart our path to long-term economic recovery.”

Rod Phillips says, ‘Travelling over the holidays was the wrong decision, and I once again offer my unreserved apology.’ (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Travelling was the wrong decision, Phillips says

Soon after Ford’s announcement, Phillips’s office also issued a statement confirming his resignation as minister of finance.

“Travelling over the holidays was the wrong decision, and I once again offer my unreserved apology,” Phillips wrote in the statement.

He said ensuring Ontario emerges from COVID-19 in a strong position was his priority as the minister of finance, and it should be the government’s priority going forward.

“I would like to thank my family, political staff and the officials at the Ministry of Finance,” Phillips said.

Phillips, who will remain a member of the provincial legislature, said he looks forward to focusing his efforts on continuing to serve the people of Ajax as their member of parliament.

‘Dumb, dumb mistake,’ Phillips says

Earlier Phillips said he deeply apologized for his decision to travel abroad during this time and that there was nobody to blame but himself. He called the trip a “dumb, dumb mistake.”

“Obviously, I made a significant error in judgment, and I will be accountable for that,” Phillips said from Pearson airport in Toronto on Thursday.

“I do not make any excuses for the fact that I travelled when we shouldn’t have travelled.”

On Dec. 24, Rod Phillips tweeted a video in which he’s seen sitting by a fireplace. In the video, he thanked people for what they are doing to protect the most vulnerable. (Rod Phillips/Twitter)

Phillips was in St. Barts since Dec.13 and will quarantine in Ajax, Ont., for 14 days starting today.

He said earlier this week he chose to go ahead with the trip not knowing the province would be placed under lockdown on Boxing Day.

“I understand that my actions have angered a lot of people, and I have to earn back that confidence.”

‘I’m very upset’: Premier Ford 

The premier had said Wednesday he wasn’t told about the trip ahead of time, but he did learn about it shortly after it began and should have demanded Phillips return immediately.

He said it’s “unacceptable” for any public official to ignore the province’s COVID-19 guidelines, which urge residents to avoid non-essential travel.

Phillips apologized Tuesday evening for leaving the country on Dec. 13 for a personal trip even as health officials pleaded with Ontarians to only venture outside of their homes for essential purposes.

Rod Phillips says he looks forward to focusing his efforts on continuing to serve the people of Ajax as their member of parliament. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

News of Phillips’s holiday trip to the Caribbean — despite the COVID-19 pandemic and his own government’s advice to avoid non-essential travel — has left many questioning how it came about in the first place and sparked calls for his resignation.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was among those who called for Phillips’s removal from cabinet.

“While the government demands sacrifice from everyday Ontarians, Rod Phillips chose to ignore public health advice, jet off to St. Barts and create an elaborate coverup on social media,” Horwath said Wednesday.

“It’s not believable that a senior member of cabinet didn’t tell the premier’s office he was leaving the country for weeks during the height of a global emergency. If he didn’t, that in itself would be enough reason to demote him.”

Rules should be same for all, premier says

Meanwhile, the Liberals noted it had been a “longstanding requirement” for ministers to notify the premier’s office of any out-of-province travel, and urged Ford to disclose if any others on his team had ventured outside Ontario during the pandemic.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was among those who called for Phillips’s removal from cabinet. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

On Wednesday, Phillips’s office also told CBC News that the minister had taken a trip to Switzerland in August.

Ford spoke publicly on the issue for the first time on Wednesday while he was at Trillium Health in Mississauga, Ont., where staff are preparing to distribute Moderna COVID-19 vaccines to Peel Public Health.

“There can’t be rules for elected people and non-elected people,” Ford told reporters.

“I can tell you I’m very upset. I’m very frustrated with the situation,” he said.

“I stand out here every single day and tell people to stay at home.”

Home for the holidays?

Days after he had departed on his trip, Phillips’s office posted a series of tweets for the minister that could arguably give the impression he was home for the holidays.

The posts included a video of Phillips sitting next to a fireplace, thanking Ontarians for protecting the most vulnerable and a previously taken photo of him holding local maple syrup to celebrate National Maple Syrup Day. 

In response to this, Phillips said Thursday it is not out of the norm to schedule tweets ahead of time, especially for politicians like himself.

“Most politicians pre-program and pre-record a lot of their social media content. I did that to promote Ajax businesses, to promote the COVID-19 supports that we have for small businesses across the province and to wish my constituents a holiday greeting,” Phillips said.

“That said, I understand in the circumstances why it seemed insincere. I apologize for that.”

Phillips, 55, entered public life in 2017 when he was acclaimed as the Progressive Conservative candidate for the Ontario riding of Ajax.

He briefly contemplated a run for the leadership of the party after then leader Patrick Brown resigned in early 2018, but instead backed Caroline Mulroney, who eventually lost to Ford.

Phillips won a seat in the legislature later that year and was appointed environment minister as the new government dismantled the previous Liberal’s cap-and-trade climate change plan.

He was tasked with rolling out the province’s controversial new strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that fall.

Prior to entering politics, Phillips was the CEO of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, and chairman of newspaper publisher Postmedia.

He also served as chief of staff to former Progressive Conservative labour minister Elizabeth Witmer and former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman.

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