The deflection tactic is by now familiar. When asked to comment on their vaccination status, numerous politicians of a particularly conservative inclination have opted to declare that their personal health information is no one else’s business and therefore will not be divulged.
Conservative MP Ted Falk (Provencher) was the latest to unleash the privacy defence, responding last week to a Free Press effort to survey the vaccination inclinations of Manitoba’s elected officials with a predictable statement from his office:
"The personal medical information of Canadians is private. As such, MP Falk will not be commenting on any matters related to his personal health."
While privacy is a right of all Canadians, it does come with a caveat: the ground rules are slightly different for those who have sought and attained public office. With elected-official status comes a unique set of expectations and obligations. And because of that, Mr. Falk and other politicians should rightly be expected to provide clarity on questions of urgent public interest.
Whether an aspiring politician has a criminal record is of public concern. Whether a candidate’s privately held financial interests create potential political conflicts of interest is definitely of public interest.
And while whether Mr. Falk has been vaccinated against COVID-19, or has a valid reason for not doing so, can perhaps justifiably be shielded as "private" information, his position on vaccination, as an elected MP tasked with serving the citizens who elected him, is something that must be stated plainly and held up to public scrutiny.
While privacy is a right of all Canadians, it does come with a caveat: the ground rules are slightly different for those who have sought and attained public office.
Disclosing personal medical information might not be part of an elected official’s job, but serving (and protecting) the public is the entirety of the job. It’s an obligation officials freely accept the moment they decide to run for office. And since vaccines have been shown to be the best protection against COVID-19, whether or not an MP or MLA supports vaccination is very much the public’s business.
Of course, there’s a political calculus involved when the likes of Mr. Falk and Manitoba MLA/cabinet minister Ron Schuler refuse to reveal their vaccination status. Mr. Falk represents a riding in which some of the least-vaccinated areas of Manitoba — indeed, in all of Canada — are located; as a respected voice in the region, he has a responsibility to follow the science and offer his constituents accurate information that will help protect them from largely avoidable threats to their health.
Mr. Schuler has been entrusted with a cabinet position — the infrastructure ministry — by a premier who has spent countless hours and considerable political capital telling Manitobans vaccination is the province’s best hope of beating COVID-19. As such, the Springfield-Ritchot MLA’s position on vaccination should be of abiding interest to the public, and to the premier — whether Brian Pallister or his successor — who would be wise to factor such information into any assessment of his fitness for cabinet duty.
Earlier this week, a recording from last April surfaced in which Mr. Falk is heard on a little-known podcast called Conservative Roundup saying he is "not an anti-vaxxer" but is "not completely sold on this vaccination." He accuses the Liberal government and the media of scare-mongering with dire talk about COVID-19 and offering people perhaps-false hope that "if they can just get the vaccine everything will be OK."
It’s time for Mr. Falk — and other elected officials who’ve taken cover behind "private information" claims — to clear the air. How they handle their personal health information might be their business, but what they, as elected officials, believe about COVID-19 and vaccination is very much ours.