Ontario: Finance minister resigns after 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.”

‘Dumb, dumb mistake,’ Phillips says

Phillips said he deeply apologizes for his decision to travel abroad during this time and that there is 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.”

Phillips has been 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.

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.

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

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. From a video of him sitting next to a fireplace, thanking Ontarians for protecting the most vulnerable, to 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.”

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