COVID Rogues: The End of ‘No, Minister’?

L. Ian MacDonald

January 6, 2021

Years from now, the Adventures of Rod Phillips will be a COMMs 101 case study in optics mismanagement. For one thing, there was the sheer stupidity of the finance minister of Canada’s largest province, responsible for every nickel spent by Ontario, going on holiday outside the country in the middle of the biggest health, employment and financial crisis in a century.

What was he thinking, and where was the staff, to say: “No, minister, that’s a very bad idea.” Instead of putting a stop to it, they enabled it, taping a fireside chat in which Philips toasted his constituents with eggnog alongside a gingerbread house, wishing them a merry Christmas and a happy New Year while he was in balmy St. Barts.

When the message ran on Christmas Eve, Phillips was already 3,200 km south of that fireplace, at one of the most exclusive and expensive vacation resorts in the world. He had left in mid-December, just as Ontario began putting up the highest COVID-19 case numbers in Canada.

And then when Toronto radio station CFRB broke the story last week, all hell quite understandably broke loose. Apologizing profusely on his return to Toronto airport, Phillips admitted he had made a “dumb, dumb mistake.” And with that, Premier Doug Ford promptly demanded and received his resignation from cabinet, though he decided to stay on at Queen’s Park as the member from Ajax, one of the monied metro suburbs east of Toronto, saying he hoped to regain the confidence of his constituents.

It turned out that Phillips was not alone in being politically tone deaf. It also developed that Dr. Tom Stewart, CEO of two health centres in the Niagara-Hamilton region, booked off for two weeks in the Dominican Republic over the holidays. He was also a member of Ford’s top-tier advisory board of medical practitioners. When a local paper broke that story, along with the death of 71 Niagara patients since his departure, Ford promptly obtained his resignation from the advisory board. A repentant Dr. Stewart, having abandoned his dying patients for a beach, apologized and advised people against travelling outside the country. But, Wednesday night, CBC reported he had also lost his CEO job.

There were two things that made these stories so explosive. First, they were about the pandemic and the toll it is taking on Canadians. Second, it all went down during the Christmas holidays, usually the slowest news week of the year.

Not to be outdone by a Toronto radio station, the Globe and Mail activated its self-designated title as Canada’s national newspaper. As the intrepid Janice Dickson reported in Wednesday’s edition: “Last week the Globe and Mail contacted every federal and provincial cabinet minister to ask about international travel since pandemic restrictions began.” She updated by noting that while hundreds had replied, “the Globe was still waiting to hear from 20 ministers in Quebec, one in Newfoundland and two in Nunavut.” Then this week, the media turned their eye on opposition members and government backbenchers.

Meanwhile, in Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney was taken completely off-guard by the holiday travels of a minister, several backbenchers and his own chief of staff, saying last Friday he wouldn’t push them out. Shaken by the spontaneous outrage of Albertans, he changed his mind by Monday and dumped them all.

Tracy Allard, the minister of municipal affairs, was on a beach in Hawaii while Calgary, Edmonton and every town in the province were invaded by the pandemic, leaving them without answers to money and care questions. Constituents hung a sign, with a hash tag, “#Aloha, Allard” outside her riding office in Grande Prairie.

In Ottawa, among opposition members, NDP member Niki Ashton had given the party notice of a family trip to Greece to visit her gravely ill grandmother. Evidently, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was unaware, she got caught in a media crossfire and stepped aside from her opposition duties in the House.

On the Liberal backbench, Brampton West MP Kamal Khera flew to Washington State to attend a holiday memorial service for her uncle, who along with her own father had died earlier last year. Though local authorities kept attendance to less than 10 socially distanced people, and she evidently quarantined on her return, the Prime Minister’s Office suggested she step down as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of International Development. And Sameer Zuberi, from the safe Montreal West Island riding of Pierrefonds-Dollard was also asked to relinquish his PS role for visiting his wife’s sick grandfather in Delaware.

Asked about this at his first news conference of the year Tuesday, Justin Trudeau said he was “disappointed” in his own MPs and the larger cohort of defrocked pols, saying that in the circumstances, “politicians should know better than to travel.”

Now we’re into serious tests of competence, the distribution and allocation of pandemic vaccines in a timely, efficient and fair manner, while awaiting the dread possibility of a third wave of COVID infections. It’s an important moment in federal-provincial relations—the very essence of federalism.

Most of the money comes from Ottawa, while most of the services are delivered by the provinces Over to the PM and premiers—this is a time for leadership, and good faith, all around. A time to get it done.

L. Ian MacDonald is Editor and Publisher of Policy Magazine.