Trudeaus’ split: should we care about private lives of politicians?

The separation between what is private and public is ‘dubious’, says one commentator

The Trudeaus kiss at a rally
The ‘big question on the lips of the chattering class’ is will it affect his political future?
(Image credit: Andrej Ivanov/AFP via Getty Images)

Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, are to separate after 18 years of marriage.

The pair were a “political power couple”, said The Telegraph, and Grégoire has been not only “the wife to this prime minister and mother of his children” but also “an adviser, on everything from campaign style to the biggest decisions Trudeau has made”, the Toronto Star explained.

Therefore, their split has reopened the question of how much the private lives of politicians matter.

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What did the papers say?

“It wasn’t too long ago that relationship difficulties could sink a political career – or cost you your head,” wrote John Sakellariadis for Politico, but news of the Trudeau split “isn’t exactly sending shockwaves across Ottawa or Washington”.

This is partly because “conjugal course corrections” are becoming more commonplace in society and also because Trudeau is “just the latest in a rapidly expanding line of elected officials who have run into marital trouble while in office”. Others include Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin.

But the media’s attitude to the personal lives of politicians has evolved over time. Although politicians have sought the “glory and the burden of public service”, said Time magazine in 1969, they do “have the right, simply as human beings, to privacy, relaxation and escape from responsibility”.

By 2004, wrote Martin Kettle for The Guardian, several news organisations would “actively promote the principle that whatever is of interest to the public is also in the public interest”.

“No politician should be covered solely through the lens of the worst/most embarrassing thing they’ve ever done,” wrote Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post, “but that doesn’t mean that the focus on the personal is completely misguided or corrosive to politics, journalism or both.”

Journalists should try to help us understand what makes people who “had the audacity to put themselves forward as the single best person in the country to represent it – tick”.

Content relating to the private lives of politicians “needs to be understood in terms of its relevance to their ability to execute their role”, wrote Bella Vacaflores for The Ethics Centre.

Therefore, she argued, we should “actively dismiss and avoid searching for details that tell us nothing about the honesty, accountability, competence, integrity, judgement, and self-discipline of a public official, no matter how salacious”. But equally, we can “feel justified in pursuing information that reveals their historic performance in such areas”.

Yet “the idea that ethics has anything to do with politics is often (justifiably) met with some degree of scepticism”, wrote Joshua Hobbs, lecturer and consultant in applied ethics, on The Conversation.

John F. Kennedy is “generally thought of as a competent politician, but with a very chaotic (and unethical) personal life”, wrote Hobbs. But he is “the exception” as it is “more likely that someone with an unethical private life would carry this behaviour into their politics”.

The “separation between private and public is dubious”, agreed Suzanne Moore in The Guardian. “We could say that nothing that happens outside a parliamentary setting is anyone’s goddamned business”, she wrote, “and just accept the protection this attitude affords powerful men.”

But “does it actually matter how men treat women in their personal lives?” she asked. “You know what, it does.”

What next?

The “big question on the lips of the chattering class in Ottawa” is whether the divorce could “change his political future”, wrote Kyle Duggan for Politico.

He’s “down in the polls, and not by a little”, he “recently moved around much of his team in Cabinet, to little fanfare”, plus “he’s getting legally separated and the kids are staying with him”, wrote Duggan.

But if the separation has been “weighing on” Trudeau and “causing his performance to struggle, putting it out there might give him an opportunity to bounce back and get his head back in the game”, he added.

Trudeau is yet to formally confirm whether he will be running for a fourth term in the Canadian election scheduled for October 2025, and his separation is the first of any sitting Canadian prime minister since his own parents’ divorce in 1977, noted the Daily Mail, so there is “little precedent for how it could affect his political ratings. However, it’s safe to say that his wife has been an effective political asset to him over the years – often seen by his side in election campaigns.”

And with his political career “closely tied to his personal life” his separation “could have a large impact on his future”, it added.

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Chas Newkey-Burden has been part of The Week Digital team for more than a decade and a journalist for 25 years, starting out on the irreverent football weekly 90 Minutes, before moving to lifestyle magazines Loaded and Attitude. He was a columnist for The Big Issue and landed a world exclusive with David Beckham that became the weekly magazine’s bestselling issue. He now writes regularly for The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Metro, FourFourTwo and the i new site. He is also the author of a number of non-fiction books.