A story playing out in Canada this week would make the writers behind HBO’s Veep envious.
The tale revolves around Ontario’s finance minister, Rod Phillips, who was caught in an apparent attempt to mislead the public about where he was working over the holidays, when the 14.5 million residents of his province were presumably abiding by the constraints of a strict lockdown and travel restrictions.
Phillips flew to St. Barts for a trip that he says was booked before the lockdown was announced. But his mid-December departure came after it was advised that trips be limited to essential travel only.
Compounding the error, Phillips tweeted messages while he was away that would have led anyone to believe he was at home in Ajax, a suburb outside Toronto that he represents in the provincial parliament.
Here’s the tweet Phillips staged before leaving the country, and that his office published on Christmas Eve:
He thanked frontline workers for their sacrifices in a separate tweet the same day.
Before he flew off, Phillips also had a photo taken for National Maple Syrup Day, on Dec. 17, by which time he had already been in St. Barts for several days.
Ontario premier Doug Ford initially claimed he wasn’t aware of the trip until the minister left. Phillips did join Zoom calls and continued working from St. Barts, but he used a background featuring Toronto’s provincial parliament buildings on at least one call, from which the opposition party shared a screenshot.
Ford is now acknowledging he knew, before the scandal broke, that Phillips was out of the country.
Phillips of course also works for those who voted him into office, and many were not pleased with the shenanigans. Some mocked him online, while others expressed deep outrage. Several people who canceled trips and missed opportunities to see loved ones were aghast.
The Canadian joins a list of politicians who have behaved as if Covid-19 rules did not apply to them. The trendsetter might be Dominic Cummings, the former chief advisor to UK prime minister Boris Johnson. Cummings drove across the UK during the initial phase of the pandemic as cases were spiking, after creating quarantine guidelines meant to keep people at home. (He quit his job in November, over an unrelated matter.) More recently, the mayor of Austin, Texas, was busted for urging residents to stay home while he was on a winter vacation in Mexico. But Phillips’ premeditated tweets put his caper into a category of its own.
When he arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on New Year’s Eve, the lightly tanned minister told reporters that he made “a dumb, dumb mistake” and offered an unreserved apology for what he had done. He said he planned to work hard to regain voters’ trust and that he wanted to keep his job, but that his fate in government would be decided by the premier.
The politician also defended his questionable tweets at his airport press appearance, saying it’s common for politicians to pre-record and schedule social media posts and that he had intended to promote Ajax businesses (he gave a local orchard a shoutout on Maple Syrup Day) and to send holiday greetings to his constituents.
“That said,” he added, “I understand in the circumstances why it seemed insincere, and I apologize for that.”
Shortly thereafter, Ford announced that he had accepted Phillips’ resignation.