Ontario finance minister resigns after highly criticized Caribbean vacation

Click to play video: '‘A dumb mistake,’ Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips says upon return from vacation'
‘A dumb mistake,’ Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips says upon return from vacation
‘A dumb mistake,’ Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips says upon return from vacation – Dec 31, 2020

Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips has resigned from his position in cabinet after returning home from a personal trip to the Caribbean during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Premier Doug Ford released a statement Thursday, just hours after Phillips arrived back in Canada, saying he had accepted the minister’s resignation.

“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.

Soon after, Phillips released a statement also announcing his resignation from cabinet.

“Travelling over the holidays was the wrong decision, and I once again offer my unreserved apology,” he said.

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Ford has appointed Peter Bethlenfalvy, who is also the president of the Treasury Board, to assume the role of minister of finance. Bethlenfalvy will be delivering the 2021 budget.

Click to play video: 'Rod Phillips out as Ontario finance minister after Caribbean vacation'
Rod Phillips out as Ontario finance minister after Caribbean vacation

“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 his own statement, Phillips wished Bethlenfalvy “all the best” in his new position, and turned his focus towards his constituents.

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“I look forward to focusing my efforts on continuing to serve the people of Ajax as their Member of Provincial Parliament,” Phillips finished.

Early Thursday morning, Phillips landed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport after vacationing in St. Barts since Dec. 13.

In a press conference held at the airport, Phillips apologized for the trip, calling it a “significant error in judgment,” and a “dumb mistake.”

“I know that I disappointed a lot of people and I hope people will appreciate I disappointed no one more than myself,” he said.

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After news of the trip broke, Ford said Wednesday that he intended to have a “very tough conversation” with Phillips upon the minister’s return.

Click to play video: 'Ford says he should have asked Phillips to return earlier'
Ford says he should have asked Phillips to return earlier

Ford faced pressure to remove Phillips from his caucus due to the trip, which opposition members have said violated the province’s health measures instructing Ontarians to avoid non-essential travel.

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When asked if he would resign from cabinet early Thursday morning, Phillips said the decision was up to Ford.

I want to express to him, as I have already and as I have here, my apology for this is sincere. I think I can still make an important contribution, but finally, that’s part of the discussion I’m sure I’ll have with the premier,” he said.

Click to play video: 'The political fallout of the Rod Phillips controversy'
The political fallout of the Rod Phillips controversy

Phillips’ return also comes after the federal government announced new travel rules due to the pandemic, including requiring all air travellers to obtain a negative COVID-19 test three days before arrival.

The new rules are expected to come into effect in the next few days, meaning Phillips did not need to provide a negative test upon his arrival. However, he must still self-isolate for 14 days under existing federal guidelines, which he said he will be doing.

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Phillips said in a statement Tuesday that he left on a trip to St. Barts after the end of the legislative session.

The minister said he made the decision to travel not knowing the province would be placed under lockdown on Boxing Day, and “deeply regrets” the move.

His office did not respond to multiple requests for comment Wednesday.

Ford said Wednesday he learned roughly two weeks ago that Phillips had left the country and should have pushed for the minister’s immediate return.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Toronto officials comment on Finance Minister Rod Phillips’ out-of-country trip'
Coronavirus: Toronto officials comment on Finance Minister Rod Phillips’ out-of-country trip

He said Phillips “never told anyone” he was going to St. Barts, but it came to light quickly.

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“I did call him shortly after he arrived and I talked to him and asked where he was. He said he was away,” the premier said.

“My mistake. I take full responsibility. At that time, I should have said, ‘get your backside back to Ontario,’ and I didn’t do that.”

Ford said by Tuesday, he had told Phillips to return to Ontario “immediately.”

Thursday, after Ford announced Phillips’ resignation, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath criticized the premier for not acting fast enough.

“Doug Ford knew about Rod Phillips’ trip to St. Barts two weeks ago. 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,” she said in a statement.

When asked why he didn’t inform the premier about his trip, Phillips said the blame shouldn’t be on Ford.

“Premier Ford has far more important things to do than worry about the travel of his of his ministers or the people who work for him. As I said, this was my decision. It was a serious error in judgment,” he said.

Phillips has also faced serious backlash for a string of tweets he posted after he left for St. Barts, showing him in the Durham region, and extending holiday wishes seemingly from his home. His office previously told Global News that all content posted after Dec. 13 was shot before he left for his vacation.

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Many have claimed that Phillips posted these tweets in order to hide his personal vacation from his constituents, but Phillips said that was not the case.

“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,” he said.

He added that he understands why the posts seem “insincere,” and apologized again.

—With files from the Canadian Press

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