Rod Phillips has lost his job as Ontario finance minister after it was revealed he ignored provincial pandemic guidelines and went on a Caribbean holiday over the Christmas break.
Premier Doug Ford made the announcement Thursday afternoon, saying he had accepted Phillips’ resignation after speaking to the Ajax MPP, who had returned to Canada just hours earlier.
“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 in a statement.
Phillips will remain in the Ontario PC caucus as a member of provincial parliament. The premier said he had asked Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy to take over as finance minister and deliver the 2021 budget.
“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,” the premier said.
As finance minister, Phillips was among the most powerful figures at Queen’s Park. He left the country on Dec. 13 as COVID-19 cases surged and Ford’s government lectured Ontarians about the need to stay home over the holidays to fight the pandemic.
News of his trip to St. Barts, a small island about 180 km east of the U.S. Virgin Islands — whose expensive resorts are popular with global celebrities — provoked outrage from the public and opposition members after it became public Tuesday.
It also made headlines around the world, with the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper and U.S. gossip site TooFab.com picking up the story.
Sources told the Star Ford had been feeling pressure from caucus and cabinet members who were angry to learn about Phillips’ trip and concerned it could undermine the province’s pandemic efforts.
They felt strongly that he had to go and told the premier so, sources said.
Speaking to reporters after landing at Pearson Airport Thursday morning, Phillips said he had made “a dumb, dumb mistake” but at that time had not offered Ford his resignation.
“I think there is very important work that needs to be done, and I’d like to continue to be a part of that,” he said, while acknowledging it’s up to the premier to decide who serves in cabinet.
After Ford announced Phillips was out of cabinet, the MPP released a statement saying he had stepped down.
“Travelling over the holidays was the wrong decision, and I once again offer my unreserved apology,” he said.
Phillips wished Bethlenfalvy well and said he looked forward to continuing to serve his riding.
On Thursday morning, Phillips went straight from Pearson to his condo in Ajax, where he will quarantine for the next two weeks as required for international travellers.
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While Phillips was in the Caribbean, videos and photos posted to his social media accounts appeared to show him at home and in his riding. In a fireside video posted to Twitter on Christmas Eve, Phillips sat next to a gingerbread house and sipped eggnog while praising Ontarians for “what we are doing to protect our most vulnerable.”
The opposition said the posts were evidence Phillips tried to cover up his trip, but he denied he intended to deceive the public.
“I understand why some people believe that’s the case. It is not,” he said after arriving at Pearson Airport. “Many politicians, I would almost say most politicians, pre-program and pre-record a lot of their social media content.”
Pressed on why he planned a vacation as Ford and provincial public health officials told Ontarians to only leave home if necessary, Phillips had no explanation. “I’ve been asking myself the same thing over the last number of days,” he said.
Phillips said he hadn’t given the premier advance notice he was leaving the country because Ford “has far more important things to do than worry about the travel of his ministers or the people who work for him.”
The premier’s office said Tuesday that Ford only learned about Phillips’ tropical vacation after he left. The premier said in a statement the same day the trip was “unacceptable” and he had asked Phillips to return “immediately.”
On Wednesday, the premier clarified that he spoke to Phillips “shortly after” he arrived in the Caribbean two weeks ago and regretted not ordering him at that time to come back.
Phillips’ office has also confirmed he took a separate, personal trip to Switzerland in August, even though federal officials had advised against all non-essential travel abroad.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the minister’s resignation doesn’t absolve the premier.
“Doug Ford knew about Rod Phillips’ trip to St. Barts two weeks ago,” she said in a written statement. “Not only did Ford not fire him then, he helped him keep the trip a secret. Phillips’ resignation from cabinet today is not because of Phillips’ vacation, it’s because they got caught.”
Mike Schreiner, Leader of the Green Party of Ontario, said Phillips “did the right thing by resigning” but he worried the scandal would distract from the crucial work of getting a handle on the worsening pandemic.
“I’m sad and angry that this is the headline” when the province hit a one-day record of new COVID-19 cases, intensive care units are “overflowing,” and long-term-care residents “are facing a humanitarian crisis,” Schreiner said in a statement.
Mayor John Tory, who is friends with Phillips, said as minister Phillips “was a good, supportive partner for the City of Toronto but, as he has acknowledged, his recent regrettable actions were wrong and require this level of accountability.”
Phillips, 55, was first elected in 2018, and quickly rose through the ranks to become finance minister in June 2019. Before entering politics he held jobs as the president of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission and chair of Postmedia.
His replacement, Bethlenfalvy, will be Ford’s third finance minister since he took power two-and-a-half years ago. The representative for Pickering-Uxbridge is the province’s treasury board president, and before joining government had a 25-year career in the financial services industry with stints at Manulife Financial and TD Securities.
With files from Kris Rushowy
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation for the Star. Reach him by email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr
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