Politics, privacy and public disclosure

Recently, the Leader of the Official Opposition in Canada, Jack Layton, passed away from cancer. At the outset of the election campaign in March, questions were raised about his health since he had previously battled prostate cancer (successfully, he said), but had undergone surgery for a hip fracture. He refused to say what caused the fracture. In July, he held a press conference to announce that he had been diagnosed with a second cancer, and was temporarily stepping down as leader. He died a few weeks later.

There have been questions raised over whether Mr. Layton should have been more forthcoming about his health issues. Even after his death, his widow and the party refuse to say what sort of cancer he had this second time around, and when he was diagnosed with it. They claim he did not know about the second cancer during the campaign. Some journalists (for example, see here, here (article is in French, but you can run it through an online translator) and here) argue that Mr. Layton should have been more forthcoming about his health, and that he wasn’t for purely political reasons because doing so would have affected how thousands of people voted. Here are some sample quotes from two of the above articles:

From André Picard:

One of the things you sacrifice is your privacy. That ranges from having a pesky security detail to being available almost around the clock, and it extends to fighting your health-care battles a little more publicly than you might want to.

Mr. Layton should tell his political family – the electorate – what he tells his immediate family: what kind of cancer he has, the treatment he will undergo and the prognosis.

That is part of being a modern-day political leader. (…)

Ask yourselves this question: If it was the Prime Minister who was undergoing cancer treatment, would we be satisfied with the vagueness of the information? So why should we accept this lack of transparency from the Leader of the Official Opposition (and potential PM-in-waiting)?

From Lysianne Gagnon:

Last week, Olivia Chow, Mr. Layton’s widow, told the CBC that she didn’t want to reveal what type of cancer killed her husband because it might “discourage” other cancer sufferers. This is preposterous. Cancer patients are not stupid. They know that there are as many cases as there are individuals, and that some of them will survive and some of them will die. Why treat them like children incapable of making a distinction between Mr. Layton’s fate and their own?

I can understand why Mr. Layton did not acknowledge his condition at the outset of the election campaign. He would have had to resign, thereby throwing his party in disarray. And for him, campaigning was certainly the best therapy he could have. Indeed, for a while, the flow of adrenalin trumped the disease. Still, his story should come as a lesson. (…)

In the 21st century, shouldn’t transparency be required from those running for the highest offices in the land?

While I can certainly understand where both writers are coming from, they both seem to be ignoring a larger issue – we don’t have a presidential system.

In the US, presidents and presidential candidates are expected to make their health records public. Of course, in the US, voters directly elect the president. If the president or a presidential candidate suffers from a serious disease, this should be public knowledge because it would directly affect how people vote. If a president becomes incapacitated, it is the vice-president who would take office. It is the president who chooses his or her VP – the voters vote for the ticket, they have no choice over who becomes the running mate. Therefore they have a vested interest in knowing that the president or presidential candidate is in good health, since the choice of VP is often more of a purely political calculation rather than an endorsement of that candidate’s skills and qualifications.

In Westminster parliamentary systems, however, voters do not elect the Prime Minister directly, nor do they directly elect their government (see this post on how the PM is chosen). Canadians (and Brits, and Australians and New Zealanders, etc.) elect an MP to represent their constituency. The MPs elected constitute a Parliament. It is that Parliament which determines what party (or parties) will command the confidence of the House and thus form the government. An MP who is leader of a political party becomes PM only if that party ends up forming the government. A party can choose to replace its leader at any time, and often does so. Voters have no say in this, and it doesn’t change anything in the House of Commons.

Indeed, it isn’t uncommon for governing parties to change leaders mid-term, for example, when Paul Martin replaced Jean Chrétien as PM and Liberal leader in Canada, or when Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as PM and Labour leader in the UK –  as long as the government still maintains the confidence of the House, who the leader of that party is really doesn’t matter. Similarly, even if something did happen to the Prime Minister, which might force him or her to step down for health reasons, or if they died suddenly in office, it wouldn’t be the Leader of the Opposition who would suddenly become PM – the party forming the government, assuming it still maintained the confidence of the House, would simply name an interim leader from among its sitting MPs, and then hold a leadership race to find a new permanent leader, who would automatically become the Prime Minister. Again, voters would have no say in any of this. Thus the Leader of the Opposition is not really a “Prime Minister in waiting”. They would not become PM if the PM resigned for health (or other) reasons, or died in office.

Because this is how our system of government works, it doesn’t matter quite as much if a party leader has to step down for any reason. They owe their position as party leader to the party, not voters in general, and second, voters do not directly elect governments. A party (or group of parties) ends up forming the government because they command the confidence of the House, not because voters directly elected them to that position.

However, it is increasingly true that more and more voters cast their vote not based on the qualities of their various local candidates for MP, but based on who their favourite party leader happens to be. Polls have shown that this is certainly true in the case of Mr. Layton in the May 2011 election – much of the party’s new found support in the province of Quebec was really a vote for Layton personally, since in many instances, the local NDP candidates didn’t even bother campaigning and in some cases, had never even visited the ridings in which they were nominated. This phenomenon isn’t limited to the NDP of course, many people in Canada will vote or not vote for a given party because of that party’s leader, regardless of how able that party’s local candidate might be, and all parties run placeholder candidates in constituencies they don’t normally expect to do well in.

Given this reality, it might be tempting to argue that the issue of whether a politician, and in particular, party leaders, should be more forthcoming with information concerning their health which might impact their ability to do their job is perhaps not as black and white as some might like it to be, and therefore the public had a right to know exactly what was wrong with the Leader of the Opposition.

There are some important points to consider here. First is the very argument that this is a  “right to know” matter – that the public has a “right to know” details of a politician’s health. This, of course, is nonsense – there is no legal requirement that any person in Canada publicly reveal details about their health. This is instead more of a moral issue, the moral obligation of a politician to tell voters if they are able to carry out their duties, which is what Layton did. He announced that he was temporarily stepping down because he couldn’t carry out his duties as Leader of the Opposition, he needed to focus on fighting this new bout of cancer. Should he have stepped down before the election? Obviously Mr. Layton believed he could campaign effectively, and indeed, he did. Therefore, even if he did know at that time that he had another cancer, this did not affect his ability to carry out his duties on the campaign trail.

Another important point is that Layton’s health issues had absolutely no impact on the country. He wasn’t part of the government, and so was not in the position of making any critical policy decisions affecting the country. But even if his party had won the election in May and he had ended up Prime Minister, the same arguments would apply. His first obligation would have been to assess if he could carry out his duties, and if not, to inform the public of this and step down. He would not be obliged to make public the details of his health issues.

Those who are argue that Canada should adopt a full disclosure policy similar to that in the US ignore one very important thing. The Westminster parliamentary system is based on cabinet government – decisions are not made by the Prime Minister alone (in theory at least), but collectively, by the ministry. This is why in most, if not all of the countries using the Westminster system, the constitutions of those country make no mention of the position, power and status of prime ministers. This is certainly the case in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Interestingly enough, in the British tradition there was no official leader of the British Cabinet until the 19th century. Prior to that time, Cabinet Ministers enjoyed control over their respective departments and worked in concert to address broad government matters. By the 1800s, however, it became customary to recognize a “senior” or “first” minister in the Cabinet, who was later given the title of Prime Minister.

Obviously this is no longer the case, since the post of Prime Minister has become very central. Still, the reality is that the government, the ministry, would continue to function just fine without a Prime Minister. The PM is, to be blunt, effectively replaceable. This is not a presidential system.

In the event that an election was on the horizon, then I think the party leader would owe it first and foremost to their party to be upfront about their ability to continue as leader. They still would not be under any obligation to make public the details of their health problems.

However, not doing so is problematic. André Picard raises one notable point in his article:

Do public officials owe the public full disclosure?

In an era marked by a volatile cocktail of cynicism about politics, and when gossip flows as freely as news (via Twitter, Facebook, 24-hour news portals, etc.), the answer is: Absolutely.

The reality is that if a politician decides to keep details of their health private, this inevitably leads to endless speculation, rumour and debate in the media and online. Repeated denials that something is wrong or of the exact nature of the health problem will look like an attempt to hide something, even if that is not the case. This is unfortunate, since it may mean that some will feel pressured to reveal information they’d rather keep private simply to put an end to rumours and half-truths.

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