OTTAWA- Jim Flaherty, Canada’s finance minister, stunned Canadians when he revealed in an interview about a month ago that he had a serious skin condition but that he was still up to his high-powered job.
For months, the minister had tip-toed around questions about his health. But his changing appearance gave it away. His face was puffy and red, he looked very tired, and wasn’t his pleasant self. At times, he appeared flustered at news conferences and during the daily Question Period in the House of Commons.
As it turned out, Flaherty is suffering from a “non-life threatening but serious” skin condition called Bullous Pemphigoid, his office eventually released in a statement. He was prescribed prednisone, a powerful steroid that causes “bloating, weight gain, redness in the face and bouts of sleeplessness,” the statement said, adding his condition “was clearing up.”
Flaherty has had this condition for nearly a year and by his own account, was very reluctant to talk about it openly. In an interview at the end of January with the The Globe and Mail, the minister said it was difficult for him to share his ailment with the public.
“I don’t like talking about this,” he admitted. “But it’s necessary because I am in public office. I don’t want people to think there’s something significantly wrong with my health that affects my ability to do my job.”
Should he have been forthcoming with his dermatological condition?
There’s no clear-cut answer to that question. In Canada, there’s no legal requirement for a minister of the Crown or for the prime minister, for that matter, to reveal the nature of his sickness. Public officials have a right to privacy when it comes to health issues. But to what degree?According to experts, despite the disquieting remarks about the minister’s weight gain, there was no compelling reason to reveal the nature of his illness.
“If all you have is a skin disease, I don’t think you have to disclose it,” says Margaret Somerville, director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics, and Law in Montréal.
While the trend is for leaders and high-profile public officials to release medical information in the name of transparency and accountability, the situation is delicate. As a citizen, Flaherty also has the right to privacy. “The right to privacy is not absolute but it’s very strong,” says Somerville.
In these matters, it’s important to know where to draw the line. It’s a bit like “the presumption of innocence,” she adds. “Here we presume privacy until we can see that an exception is justified.”
“If it doesn’t affect his ability to do his job, I think it’s scandalous to criticize the fact that he has a puffy face because it’s not a criteria for good governance,” agrees Caroline Patsias, a political scientist at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
Others disagree. Politicians give up their right to privacy when they run for office, says Lawrence Altman, a former New York Times reporter and a senior fellow with The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In that sense, Jim Flaherty did the right thing.
“He disclosed it but he did it under duress, obviously, because the side effects were showing up.”
Over the years, there has been a lot more scrutiny in the U.S. about the president’s health. His medical bulletin is published periodically following a check-up with details on his weight, cholesterol level and smoking habits.
“There’s no legal requirement to do it but it’s become standard operating procedure now compared to a few decades ago” because of the change in public attitudes, says Altman.
President Woodrow Wilson, who was in office from 1913-1921, hid his debilitating stroke from the public. His wife, Edith, basically ran the White House for a whole year before his death, experts say. Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to hide his polio and paralyzed legs to a large extent from the American people. He was hardly ever seen in a wheelchair. John F. Kennedy’s back problems were kept quiet. And there are numerous other examples.
But the Cold War and the Nuclear Age changed all that, explains Dan Mahaffee from the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington. As commander-in-chief, and with his finger on the nuclear button, the president’s health became not only a topic of conversation but a political and strategic issue.
“The idea that the American President, the president of the American superpower, could be ill or in ill health would be a disquieting factor among allies and may even, in the minds of the time, convince the Soviets that they had somehow the upper hand,” says Mahaffee.
In Canada, the situation has evolved differently. It’s hardly a front-page story.
“Part of it may be, as Americans will say, that Canadians are too polite,” adds Mahaffee. “But the other part is that you have a parliamentary system so there’s less of an emphasis on the individual[…] There’s no sense that the Prime Minister has the finger on the button as opposed to the American president.”
In Canada’s parliamentary system, voters tend to vote for the political party rather than the leader. If the prime minister were to become incapacitated during his term, his party would stay in power and elect a temporary leader until the next elections.
Described by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper “as the best Finance Minister in the world,” Flaherty has earned an international reputation as a tough but credible Finance minister. He’s been at this job since 2006. And there’s no obvious successor in sight.
And with Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney going off to head the Bank of England this year, it was probably felt that it was a good idea to reassure the public and financial markets that he would remain at the helm in times of global economic turmoil.