When, a few years ago, Rod Phillips announced his intention to run for a seat at Queen’s Park, conservatives everywhere were pretty pleased.
Phillips was exactly the kind of candidate the Progressive Conservative party had hoped to attract. At that time in his early 50s, he had the perfect blend of experience in both the political back rooms and the private sector of the province. He’d been chief of staff to both a respected former Tory cabinet minister (Elizabeth Witmer), and a former Toronto mayor (Mel Lastman). He was at the side of then PC leader John Tory, through the 2007 Ontario election campaign.
He’d worked for some of the best companies in the private sector, including KPMG, Morneau-Shepell, and Goodman’s LLP, eventually becoming chair of the board of Postmedia, whose properties include the National Post, Toronto Sun, and Ottawa Citizen.
He also had experience in the public and voluntary sectors, as president and CEO of Ontario Lottery and Gaming, and chair of CivicAction, a non-profit.
In other words, Rod Phillips is not a dumb guy. He just can’t be to have achieved all of that.
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So, when he ran for Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in June 2018, no one was surprised to see him win by a healthy 4,000-vote margin in Ajax, then march right into cabinet. A year later, Ford promoted him to finance minister. In politics, that kind of trajectory just doesn’t get much better. He looked like he was right out of central casting for a treasurer: tall, slim, personable, with enough gray in his hair to convey the kind of gravitas Bay Street likes —an adult with a responsible temperament in a government that had too much aggressive, disruptive populism at its core.
Today, however, Phillips’ meteoric political rise is over, at least for now. He met with the premier after returning to Toronto and tendered his resignation as finance minister. (Treasury Board President Peter Bethenfalvy will take over immediately and present the province’s budget in a couple of months).
Phillips has been the talk of politics for several days, ever since it emerged that he made the inexplicable decision to take a three-week holiday in St. Barts, after the government told the rest of Ontario to stay put, hunker down, and isolate at home in hopes of making some progress against the coronavirus.
Even worse (if that’s possible), Phillips’ staff were tweeting out pictures, while their minister was on vacation, conveying the impression that Phillips was hard at work here at home, meeting with stakeholders and making policy announcements in his riding.
In spite of the resignation, there are still so many questions that need answering, and Phillips only touched on some of them during a brief scrum he held this morning upon his return to Pearson International Airport:
- First and foremost, what the hell was he thinking by travelling at this time of year?
- Why would he have his staff tweet pictures of him appearing to work while physically present in the riding?
- Did he not understand that it would look like he was trying to deceive people?
- Did he know his people were, in fact, tweeting photos in his absence, or did they just take it upon themselves to do so?
- Given that his staff surely knew he was out of the country, did none of them suggest to him that putting out those kinds of tweets would look deceptive, and maybe they shouldn’t do it?
- The premier says he hadn’t known that Phillips had left the country, but only found out after the fact when his minister was already down south. Why didn’t he chew him out right at that moment and order him to come home immediately?
- Why would Phillips do a Zoom meeting from St. Barts, complete with a phony backdrop of Queen’s Park, again conveying the impression he was still in Ontario?
- Why would Phillips (or his staff) tweet out a “Merry Christmas” video of the treasurer sitting in front of a fireplace, sipping on eggnog, when he was actually vacationing in sunnier climes?
- Given that Phillips hadn’t made just one mistake here but many, could he possibly regain the trust he needs—with his premier, his cabinet and caucus colleagues, and most importantly with his constituents and the broader public—to be effective in his job?
Well, we now know the answer to the last one. Ford obviously concluded the situation was untenable and either demanded or accepted Phillips’ resignation.
Let’s understand that every politician, at some point in his or her career, will make a mistake. It’s impossible to get through public life scot-free. Some mistakes are bad, but ultimately not politically fatal. This one, however, was egregious because it cut at the heart of Ford’s famous “For the People” slogan, which the premier insists is at the foundation of every decision he makes.
Ford apparently decided this situation was not salvageable. The premier did the right thing yesterday by acknowledging his own shortcomings in this affair, admitting he should have told Phillips to get “his backside” home, as soon as he found out his minister was away.
And at the risk of getting into the weeds, there may be another agenda at play here as well. Three years ago, Phillips considered running for the leadership of the Ontario PC Party, but ultimately stood down and backed Caroline Mulroney. Those leadership aspirations surely haven’t gone away. By sacking Phillips, Ford also sent a message to the rest of his cabinet that he’s not going to put up with this kind of crap anymore, while at the same time, knee-capping a potential future leadership rival. Yes, premiers’ offices take every factor into account when making these decisions.
While Phillips admitted upon his arrival at Pearson Airport that he’d made a “dumb, dumb mistake…a significant error in judgement,” Ford may have needed to see a much more heartfelt level of contrition.
Finally, this story reminds us of a couple of other things. First, politics is a very human business, where even the smartest practitioners do inexplicably dumb things. I have no doubt that the treasurer’s ridiculously heavy schedule —16 to 18-hour days, seven days a week for the past nine months — contributed to this lack of judgement. Phillips is a good guy who got into politics for the right reasons, no doubt taking a massive pay cut to do so.
But it’s also a reminder that at the end of the day, all cabinet ministers are cannon fodder who serve at the pleasure of the boss. Parties win elections because a sizeable chunk of the electorate trusts the boss. So, at all costs, the boss’s “brand” must be protected. Ford has apparently decided that he can salvage the bridge of trust he’s built with much of the public during this pandemic by dumping Phillips.
We should also point out that many other high-profile ministers have resigned under a cloud, only to keep their heads down, re-establish trust with the public, and make a comeback down the road.
So, don’t write the epitaph on Rod Phillips’ political career just yet.