Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: Public figures, public lives

Last Saturday, the Progressive Conservative caucus sent out a news release to say that Alfie MacLeod, MLA for Sydney River­–Mira River–Louisbourg, was in hospital with a serious infection.

Graham Steele looks at the fine line between public and private lives when you're in politics

Alfie MacLeod, MLA for Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg, is the latest member of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party to announce his intention to run federally this fall. (Nova Scotia government)

Last Saturday, the Progressive Conservative caucus sent out a news release to say that Alfie MacLeod, MLA for Sydney River­–Mira River–Louisbourg, was in hospital with a serious infection.

On Monday, they sent an update, saying that MacLeod’s condition had necessitated the amputation of his left foot. 

The releases went out because the PC caucus wanted to get ahead of a story they knew would get in the news anyway. The emphasis in both releases is that MacLeod will return to work as an MLA as soon as possible. MacLeod and the caucus wanted to forestall any speculation about his political future.

This is a difficult time for MacLeod and his family, and yet, it’s all out there in the public domain, driven there by the realities of public life. 

Most people would agree that a politician deserves to have some private space. The problem, of course, is defining what that space is. And in the Internet age, when everyone is carrying a camera, and everything is so easily accessible, the politician’s private space has dwindled almost to nothing.

The usual reasons for delving into a politician's private life are that it reveals character, or how they might carry out their job.

The problem is that everything — every word, every action — can be said to reveal character. And everything — every strain at home, every financial problem, every physical and mental ailment — has the potential to affect someone’s ability to do their job.

It doesn’t help to have cartoon characters like Rob Ford, mayor of Toronto, smashing to smithereens any distinction between public and private. The king of cellphone videos has been filmed in a living room, a basement, and a closed restaurant — all of which are arguably private spaces — engaging in behaviour that is bizarre enough to merit public attention

The spotlight can also shine on a politician’s family members. Last week I was in Winnipeg, where the front-page headline on Saturday concerned a four-year-old Facebook post, arguably racist, written by the spouse of a mayoral candidate. The candidate himself didn’t write it, or endorse it, yet that post has dominated the news for days.

Nor does the spotlight dim with the passage of time. 

This tendency reached its logical conclusion in the 2012 U.S. presidential race, when Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who was 65 at the time, was taken to task for an incident from his high school days. His opponents said it went to character. Heaven help us all if we cannot be expected to grow and change from our high-school days.

Here in Nova Scotia, we saw an example of reaching into the past when, within days of the 1999 election, NDP leader Robert Chisholm’s teenage impaired-driving conviction was revealed to the media in an anonymous fax. Even though it had happened more than 20 years before, his opponents said it went to character, because he had not previously confessed when given the chance.

Politicians themselves are partly to blame for the vanishing line between public and private. They’re happy to trumpet the wholesomeness of their values and their families when it suits them, but protest about "invasion of privacy" when something unflattering surfaces. And they ask for privacy for themselves, but look the other way when party operatives dish the dirt on their opponents.

The truth is that politicians are as subject as anyone to family troubles, to alcoholism and other addictions, to strains on physical and mental health. But a hush-hush atmosphere surrounds them, which only encourages the muck-rakers.

Maybe politicians would be better off if they were more open about their challenges and struggles in the first place. They are doubting, fallible, searching human beings, made of flesh and blood, like the rest of us.

Alfie MacLeod felt compelled, because of the job he has, to put his private agony in the public domain. He’s a good man going through a tough time. I wish him well, and look forward to seeing him take his place when the legislature resumes in late September or October.