By my math, Jack Layton was possibly just 2,717 votes short of becoming Prime Minister in our most recent election. That many votes, occurring in the right ridings, and the Tories would have been limited to 153 seats. Layton and the NDP were pretty clear that they’d be willing to govern as part of a coalition or by way of an accord; it would have been up to the Liberals, with a leader who had spent the preceding five weeks explaining how Stephen Harper was exactly like this demon who could assume the form of a human that he’d heard about from someone at Oxford, to decide whether to prop up Stephen Harper’s government or form some sort of agreement with the NDP to rein in their crazier instincts and permit them to govern.
When the campaign kicked off after the government fell, both Layton and Michael Ignatieff had awkward questions to answer. Ignatieff had to answer the coalition question. In an excruciating five minutes, he didn’t even come close to doing so, although he did give us all an excellent taste of the creepy rictus for which he’d become so known. Layton had to answer the health question. He didn’t answer it either, although he had a funny line about taking off his pants which got a laugh and the whole thing was sort of forgotten for the rest of the campaign while everyone talked about how courageous he was.
If those 2,717 votes had gone the other way, Layton might be Prime Minister today. If he was Prime Minister today, the announcement that he has a new form of cancer might be somewhat more than a personal tragedy but one that puts the country in a somewhat uncomfortable position, with barely restrained jockeying for the PM’s seat as we witnessed the possibility of an NDP/Liberal government, elected mostly on Layton’s general likability, that was led by someone other than Layton.
It’s understandable that everyone wants to give Layton their best wishes. I certainly hope that he comes through his latest illness and is back in the House of Commons when it resumes. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder the extent to which Layton’s health problems were foreseeable in late March when the campaign kicked off. We don’t know, in part, because the media let Layton skate on the point during the election campaign. If significant pressure had been brought to bear on the NDP, perhaps they would have elected to disclose the records.
There’s an excellent article in the Winnipeg Free Press that kind of alludes to some of these awkward questions. This passage in particular caught my eye:
Larry Altman is a medical columnist for the New York Times who has long pushed for presidents to open their medical records to the public. Now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, Altman has grilled every president from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush on their health. Some were more forthcoming than others, but all eventually gave him the scoop.
“My personal belief is that there is no illness that disqualifies anyone from running for office,” Altman says.
“The issue is that the public is entitled to know what it is and take it into consideration in voting for X or Y as a candidate. If the public chose to want to elect a dying person for office, that’s the public’s right, as long as the public knew the facts.”
There’s a line of thought running through a lot of media pieces at the moment essentially saying that Layton’s health is a private matter and he’s entitled to tell us as much or as little as he wants about it. While that’s debatable now – Layton isn’t going to be the Prime Minister any time before 2015 – I tend to agree with Altman that the public are entitled to know the facts about his health when there’s an election campaign, in order that it can make an informed choice.
It’s up to the media to force this information out of politicians. Understandably, those who might have concerns in this regard won’t be eager to provide the information. This issue is, as far as I’m concerned, precisely identical to the coalition issue for the Liberals: we are entitled to know what we’re getting into when we vote for a political party. It’s all the more true when we’re talking about a political party that won a pile of seats basically on the popularity of its leader. The media failed in laughing at his joke and then basically just shelving the issue.