Politicians jetting to sunny destinations? We’re not in this together

OPINION: Most of us spent the holidays hunkered down indoors. Turns out, some politicians felt no such responsibility. What would real accountability look like?
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on Jan 05, 2021
Rod Phillips resigned as Ontario’s finance minister on December 31, 2020. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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The National Football League has been teased for being the “No Fun League” because of its strict dress code and rules for touchdown celebrations. Case in point: Alvin Kamara, a running back for the New Orleans Saints, received a $5,000 fine following a game on Christmas Day. His crime? He wore red and green cleats during the game, thus violating the league’s uniform policy.

Earlier in December, Dwayne Haskins, a quarterback with the Washington Football Team, was stripped of his captaincy and fined $40,000 for violating COVID-19 rules. He has since been released by the team — according to reports, not solely because his play on the field, but also for his “problematic decision-making off of it.”

It’s surprising that a sports organization seems to be holding its players more accountable than we do politicians who openly flout COVID-19 rules during a global pandemic.

While the majority of us spent the holidays hunkered down in our homes — maybe venturing out for the occasional porch visit to our loved ones — politicians across the country somehow concluded that their message to us to stay home applied only to us and not to them. Many ignored lockdown rules and decided to ditch the snow for sunnier destinations, and in the first few days of what promised to be a hopeful new year, we got many excuses as to why.

Essential house maintenance issues." Planned family vacations to Hawaii, Mexico, and St. Barts. Ailing relatives and memorial services. Things most of us have had to grapple with, too, while politicians reminded us to “do the right thing.”

My husband’s father died in September, and he couldn’t attend the funeral, since it was in East Africa. As a family, we decided that it would be irresponsible to travel amid the pandemic as our actions could create untold consequences for others and for us. Many of us haven’t been able to be with our families and have had to communicate with our elders through screens of glass or tablets; saying goodbye to our loved ones through Zoom calls and watching funerals from afar and apart has become the norm, not the exception. Vacation is a privilege, as many have lost their livelihoods.

How can politicians urge us to do the right thing by staying home while they are demonstrating that the rules don’t apply to them? These aren’t mistakes.

When former minister of finance Rod Phillips returned from St. Barts, he was interviewed at Toronto Pearson Airport and asked what he had been thinking when he made the decision to travel.

“I’ve been asking myself the same thing,” he responded. He said it was “a dumb, dumb mistake” and insisted that his apology was sincere. “I will be accountable for that. I do not make any excuses for the fact that I travelled when I shouldn’t have travelled.”

As a senior member in his government, he knew he shouldn’t travel. His own government has been telling us for months to avoid non-essential travel even within the province of Ontario. According to Toronto mayor John Tory, “he’s a human being, and he made a mistake, and he’ll pay a price for that.” This was not a mistake — this was a decision. Regular people who make bad ones don’t have powerful friends defending them in public.

 “I understand that my actions have angered a lot of people, and I have to earn back that confidence,” Phillips said. “I think there’s very important work that needs to be done, and I’d like to continue to be a part of that. But I do understand that people are angry, and I have to earn back that confidence.”

But this isn’t about anger. Phillips was the person responsible for our province’s finances. At a time when small businesses are being shuttered and are struggling to survive another lockdown and more Ontarians are relying on food banks and people are losing their jobs, did he not consider the optics of travelling to one of the most expensive destinations on the planet? If he needed to get out of his house, could he not have travelled locally? Why not contribute to our struggling economy by keeping that money within our borders?

Yes, the former minister apologized. But we are in a global pandemic, and every decision that each of us makes has a ripple effect on our communities. Being accountable for your actions should mean more than apologizing for the rules you willingly and knowingly broke.

Yes, he’s stepped down as Minister of Finance, but he is still the MPP for Ajax. Police handed out $47,000 in fines for a house party in Mississauga that broke COVID-19 rules. How are we holding politicians accountable when they break the rules?

Elections shouldn’t be the only recourse. Waiting for years during a global pandemic when time is of the essence would be nonsensical. Journalists used to rely on media scrums, but during COVID-19, these scrums have morphed into call-ins where an individual from the government gets to decide who asks the questions and for how long. Politicians can and do decide what they answer to.

We have elected officials not only openly flouting lockdown rules but also denouncing and dismissing the seriousness of the situation we’re in.

Most of us work for companies with codes of conduct, and we consider the repercussions that our behaviour will have on our companies and our employment. Ignoring their own advice and that of public-health demonstrates that these politicians don’t value or need their jobs in the same way we do.

As public-health officials and those in the medical field work tirelessly to eradicate this pandemic, maybe it’s time politicians took a seat and started to take notes — because they’ve demonstrated that, a year into the pandemic, they still have a lot to learn. 

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