There was a time, not eons ago, when earthlings wondered if there might be intelligent life on Mars. A more pertinent concern for Ontario earthlings in 2021 might be if there is intelligent life in their government at Queen’s Park.
How could the minister of finance, whose responsibility is to steer the provincial economy through the pandemic and into a post-COVID recovery, be so stupid as to go AWOL, slipping away for a vacation on the most expensive island in the Caribbean at a time when everyone – from the prime minister to his own premier to public health officers everywhere – were imploring people to forego non-essential travel, to stay home and to forget about gathering with family and friends for Christmas, New Year’s and beyond?
How could Premier Doug Ford be so blind as to not notice that Finance Minister Rod Phillips had gone missing until many days after the minister and his wife had blown the province for the French island of St. Barts on Dec. 13?
Stupidity and blindness are two elements. There is also arrogance. Phillips knew about all the no-travel, stay-home instructions, and he had to be well aware of the impending province-wide lockdown to be announced for Boxing Day. He must have assumed it applied to lesser mortals, not to an important fellow like him.
To stupidity, blindness and arrogance add deceit. In a series of prepackaged tweets and videos that were released on social media after he left the country, the finance minister pretended to be working at home on government business, attending functions in Ajax, his suburban Toronto riding, and even sipping eggnog by his fireplace as he wished a merry Christmas to constituents isolated in their homes.
As I write this, Ontario has announced yet another daily record of new COVID-19 cases (3,328), Phillips has landed back in Toronto, sounding contrite (“a dumb, dumb mistake”), and Premier Ford has just taken him to the woodshed and fired him.
At 55, Phillips should be in the prime of his political career. Marked as a “comer,” he established important political connections as he worked his way up the executive ladder in business. He was a prize recruit of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives for the June 2018 provincial election. Acclaimed as the PC candidate in Ajax, a Liberal seat at the time, he won and was immediately appointed minister of the environment, conservation and parks. A year later, Ford made him minister of finance.
He was a star, political gold. Many Tories saw in Phillips a combination of business smarts and political appeal that would make him a compelling leadership candidate, post-Ford.
The damage was done by the time Ford demanded his resignation. Politically, Phillips was already a dead man walking. Ontario voters, like others, are accustomed to some stupidity and dumb decisions in high places. They have been known to overlook or forgive arrogance, but deliberate deceit is a sin of a different magnitude.
They are not likely to forget – or be allowed by the opposition parties to forget – how the finance minister tried to cover his tracks as he snuck away on a mid-pandemic winter vacation that most of the people who voted for him could only dream about. They stayed stranded at home or went to their jobs in essential services, obeying the rules while he ignored them. As Ford put it: “There can’t be (different) rules for elected people and non-elected people. … I stand out here every single day and tell people to stay at home.”
Persuading Ontarians to stay home is only one of the challenges confronting the premier as he tries to defend himself and his government against widespread criticism that they have moved at turtle speed against the pandemic, did not take essential precautions to protect patients in long-term care from COVID’s second wave, and that now they are mismanaging the distribution of vaccines.
Phillips is gone because the last thing Ford needed was a finance minister who behaved like an errant schoolboy.
Cambridge, Ont., resident Geoffrey Stevens, a former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, is co-author with the late Flora MacDonald of Flora!: A Woman in a Man’s World, to be published in fall 2021 by McGill-Queen’s University Press. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].