Inside Politics

When should a private issue become public?

The Canadian Press has a look back at questions over Jack Layton's health one year after his death. The story raises interesting questions about why Canadians get so angry at reporters who ask politicians whether they are up to running a country in the wake of a major illness.

As most people will remember, Layton was upfront when he discovered he had prostate cancer in 2010. But two years later, in March, 2011, he underwent surgery on his hip. This came after weeks where he appeared unwell, relying on a cane and sweating profusely if he had to stand for too long. By the end of that month, the day the government fell and the country was about to face the 2011 election, he assured reporters he was fine, joking that he wasn't sure what more proof he could offer without stripping naked so the media could examine him.

A few have suggested the media didn't do enough in telling the public what was going on with Layton's health. And yet reporters were asking him about his health, so, if he wasn't answering, what more could they do? Were there other options?

One journalist who wrote about his questions over Layton's health during the election, however, tells CP in the same story that he had overwhelmingly negative feedback from readers, who felt it was a private issue.

"To some of them, which is shocking to me, if Mr. Layton did run knowing his odds were grim, well it was up to him and we had nothing to say. All in all, I'd say that a very large majority of my readers thought it was not a matter for reporters to discuss or question," La Presse's Patrick Lagace told CP.

The story also quotes Dr. Lawrence Altman, the New York Times' medical reporter, who says it's up to the public to decide whether an illness disqualifies someone from public office - but that the electorate must have that information.

Altman points to the United States, where presidential candidates and presidents are subject to medical examinations and a general summary of the results are made public. In that case, however, voters choose the president directly. In Canada, voters technically cast ballots for a local MP, and the leader of the party with the most MPs elected becomes prime minister.

But while Canadians are represented in the House of Commons by an individual MP, they often look to party leaders when deciding how to vote. Layton and the NDP were evidence of that after several New Democrats were elected with little to no campaigning.

All of which raises questions voters may have to answer: why don't we want to know more about our political leaders' health? Do politicians have a responsibility to be open about those issues during an election? And do politicians have a right to run for office if they know they may not fulfill their term?
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