The vacation is over for Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said today (December 31) that the minister resigned after taking a secret trip to a luxury Caribbean destination in the middle of the province-wide COVID-19 lockdown.
“Today, following my conversation with Rod Phillips, I have accepted his resignation as Ontario’s Minister of Finance,” Premier Doug Ford said in a statement this afternoon.
“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,” he added.
The Ajax MPP left for St. Barts on a personal vacation two weeks ago without telling Ford, the premier told reporters on December 30.
Upon arriving home at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Thursday morning, Phillips told a CP24 reporter that he made a “dumb, dumb mistake”.
“Obviously I made a significant error in judgment. I will be accountable for that. I will not make any excuses for the fact that I travelled when we shouldn’tve travelled,” he said.
“I apologize for it," he added. "I regret it.”
Ford said Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy will take over as finance minister and prepare 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,” Ford said.
In a statement on Thursday afternoon, Phillips said he submitted his resignation and apologized for travelling.
“Travelling over the holidays was the wrong decision, and I once again offer my unreserved apology,” he wrote. “Ensuring Ontario emerges from COVID-19 in a strong position was my priority as the Minister of Finance, and it should be the government’s priority going forward.
“I know that important work will continue and I wish Minister Bethlenfalvy all the best as he takes on this additional responsibility,” Phillips continued, adding that he will continue serving as the MPP for Ajax.
Phillips’ trip has sparked public outrage as the province has strongly advised people to stay home as much as possible and only travel for essential reasons.
Ontario has reported record daily COVID-19 case counts in the past two days. The province confirmed 2,923 cases on December 30 and 3,300 new COVID-19 cases earlier today—the largest single-day since the pandemic began.
The opposition NDP immediately began calling on Ford to fire Phillips as news of the vacation spread.
“Doug Ford knew about Rod Phillips’ trip to St. Barts two weeks ago,” NDP leader Andrea Horwath tweeted today.
“Not only did Ford not fire him then, he helped him keep the trip a secret," she added. "Phillips’ resignation from cabinet today is not because of Phillips’ vacation, it’s because they both got caught.”
Speaking at Trillium Health on Wednesday, Ford admitted that he found out about the trip after Phillips arrived in St. Barts and regretted not asking the minister to come home sooner when speaking with him weeks ago.
The premier’s comments followed an earlier statement sent to media in which he said he was “not aware of the minister’s trip” until after Phillips was already out of the country.
Tweets tell a different story
Ford also said he was concerned about pre-scheduled tweets and other social media posts that gave the perception Phillips was at home in recent weeks.
One video, posted on Christmas Eve, showed the minister reading by a fireplace next to a gingerbread house and a glass of eggnog. In his message, he thanks Ontarians for making sacrifices “to protect our most vulnerable”.
“I know that this Christmas is a bit different than Christmases in the past. We’re meeting virtually and online and not able to be in-person with as many family and friends as we’d like to,” he says in the greeting.
On the same date, he tweeted: “As we all make sacrifices this #Christmas remember that some of our fellow citizens won’t even be home for Christmas dinner over Zoom.”
The Ontario Liberal Party has also tweeted a video of a Zoom meeting from a December 16 in which the sound of ocean waves can be heard as Phillips is speaking.
The minister’s background is a picture of Queen’s Park.
This morning, Phillips denied he was using social media to conceal his trip.
“I understand in the circumstances why [the tweets] seemed insincere,” he said.
Phillips must now quarantine for 14 days as per the federal government’s COVID-19 rules for travellers.