Friday, July 29, 2011

What Information Does Jack Layton Owe to the Public - if any?

Jack Layton, for my international readers, is the official Leader of the Opposition in Canada. He has been battling prostate cancer for some time. This week he announced his temporary withdrawal from his post, because a further cancer had been detected and needed to be treated. This all is, of course, terrible news both for Mr Layton personally, as well as for his party. Since then Canadian media outlets have begun speculating how bad his condition really is, pointing to his 'raspy voice' and the fact that he participated in Toronto's gay pride parade from the back of a ricksha, stuff like that. The question arose what levels of health disclosure public officials owe us. 

The Globe and Mail in Toronto's writer suggests that nothing short of a detailed disclosure of their health problems will do. He holds the disclosure the US President provides as a matter of course up as the gold standard. Of course, why such a standard should apply to an opposition politician (who isn't exactly in charge of the military or much else for that matter) isn't addressed in that article. There's no explanation in for why Mr Layton would owe us a full disclosure of his ailments along the standards the US President has to live up to. Why should Mr Layton's right to privacy not count? According to the G&M writer, it's because by having chosen to be in the public eye Mr Layton doesn't deserve much privacy. Really? 

Nothing could be further from the truth. Mr Layton owes us nothing at all with regard to the state of his health beyond stepping down when he is unable top fulfill his duties as an elected official, temporarily if he has reason to believe he will recover, or permanently if he has reason to believe he won't recover. We might be curious, but that doesn't establish a right to know on our part. Of course, Mr Layton has not stepped down as the elected representatives of his riding, so his electorate might want to ask him questions about his prognosis. After all, he can't currently meaningfully represent them. In case he's likely to recover he should say so, in case he's unlikely to recover he should resign his seat. However, does that mean he owes us details of his health situation? Not at all, it's none of our business. Do we need to know what other cancer he suffers from? Not at all, it's none of our business.

Elected officials owe their constituents just enough information as to permit them to make a determination on whether they remain (or will be in the foreseeable future) fit for office. No more, no less. The G&M writer offers us this silly line in his defence of his aggressive intrusion in Mr Layton's private life: 'Mr. Layton is a big boy. He can take it. The last thing he needs is pity.'  - The less said, the better.


  1. Mr. Layton may well be entitled to a high level of privacy about his current condition. But clearly what Mr. Layton owes us is an account of when he had any information that might have led him or others to suspect that he might become ill again. If--as I hope is not the case--he had any information prior to the election that might have indicated that his health would deteriorate so soon after the election, he owed us all (NDP members and the voting public) that information. The fact that he has been so unforthcoming about his current condition (especially given how much information he provided about his hip and prostate cancer) should cause concern. The real issue here is not whether he should resign now or tell us details of his current condition. We should know what he knew and when he knew it (up to the date of the election). Unfortunately and uncharacteristically, Mr. Layton has not provided that information.
    You are right in claiming that his claims to privacy have much more weight regarding information he received in the post-election period. Let us all hope both that all the bad health news he acquired was acquired after the polls closed and that none of that news was very bad.

  2. Your point is well-taken. If he knew prior to the election that he likely would not be able to fulfill his obligations as an elected official should he win his riding, he'd have some explaining to do.


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