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COLUMN: Public or private?

One of the biggest stories in Canadian politics this summer has been Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s separation from his wife Sophie.

One of the biggest stories in Canadian politics this summer has been Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s separation from his wife Sophie. Ironically, much of the commentary has been about commentary itself, namely how the Canadian media pays a lot less private attention to politicians’ private lives than its American counterpart. Some writers have wondered how much the public can or should know about their leaders’ private lives.

For me, the answer is very simple: Unless it affects their capacity to do their jobs, a politician’s private life is none of the public’s business and they have no right to know about it.

The United States shows some excellent examples of what I mean. In the 1910s, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke that nearly killed him. He obviously wasn’t able to do most of his duties as President, so Vice-President Thomas Marshall should’ve taken over as President. Instead, Wilson’s wife Edith hid the knowledge of Wilson’s condition from Marshall and the public, only letting a few of Wilson’s advisors know. She ended up handling many of her husband’s duties, almost serving as the U.S.’s first de facto female President. Edith’s actions were flagrantly unconstitutional, and the public would’ve had the right to know if Wilson couldn’t serve anymore.

On the other hand, in the 1990s President Bill Clinton was nearly impeached over allegations that he’d lied about not having an affair with Monica Lewinsky. Leaving aside the question of why the U.S. Congress was wasting its time and the taxpayers’ money investigating the alleged affair, it was none of the public’s business. Clinton’s alleged affairs didn’t affect his ability to serve as President, so it should’ve just been between him and Hillary.

Besides a politician’s health, the public might also have the right to know if they’re facing serious criminal charges. Gerald Regan, who was Premier of Nova Scotia in the 1970s, faced multiple rape charges in the 1990s. They came long after Regan retired, but if they’d happened while he was still in office the public obviously would’ve had the right to know. Former Saskatchewan Cabinet Minister Colin Thatcher’s affairs might not have been the public’s business, but his being charged and convicted of his wife Jo Ann’s murder in 1984 certainly was.

So, what should we be saying about the Trudeaus?

Justin Trudeau’s marital issues do not impact whether he can serve as Prime Minister, so the only thing people should be saying about it is nothing at all. If Trudeau had suffered a massive heart attack or been arrested and charged with some kind of criminal offence, it’d be different. Since he hasn’t, whatever happens in his marriage should be left up to him and Sophie.

The only way Trudeau’s separation might affect us is if it makes him decide to leave politics. If it does, he’ll let us know. Until then, we should just respect his privacy. This is probably hard enough on his family already.

A bunch of people spouting off irrelevant opinions is the last thing they need right now.


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