The political issues that dare not speak their names

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They were, until recently, sleeper issues – incipient tempests snoozing away until their moments in prime time arrived which, as it happens, was just the other day.

Greet the two cri de coeur of the common era: income inequality in one protest line and privacy rights in the other. Both are getting a lot of ink – both figurative and literal – these days.

Google “income” and “wage” and “inequality” and “gap” in any combination you like and 144 million references become available within a fraction of a second. Most recently from the mosh pit of opinion on the subject is a USA Today piece about Americans who “grapple with income inequality” even as they debate the “government’s role in the economy.”

There’s Bloomberg’s Income Inequality News, replete with “Income Inequality Photos” and “Income Inequality Videos” and a piece that chastises President Barack Obama for supporting fairer income distribution while pushing for international trade deals, such as NAFTA, that many economists blame for the wage gap.

And there’s this of local interest from the web pages of Statistics Canada , courtesy of the Huffington Post last week:

“StatsCan’s data shows some large differences in the degree of income inequality between provinces, with the Maritime provinces registering the lowest concentrations of income among high earners, while the country’s economic powerhouses – Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia – registered the highest. . .The share of income going to the top one per cent in Alberta was nearly 17 per cent, compared to around 12 per cent in Ontario and around five per cent in the Maritime provinces.”

Meanwhile, Canada’s Interim Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier has added her voice to the roaring multitude’s on the increasingly sophisticated, increasingly unaccountable, cohorts of spies, spooks and creeps who are steadily eroding any

reasonable expectation of privacy among the world’s citizenry.

“Revelations surfacing over the past months have raised questions among many Canadians about privacy in the context of national security,” she wrote in her report to Parliament last week. “While a certain level of secrecy is necessary within intelligence activities, so is accountability within a democracy. Given our mission to protect and promote privacy, and our responsibility to provide advice to Parliament, we are putting forward some recommendations and ideas for Parliamentarians to consider on these important issues.”

One of these ideas is to require Communication Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) to “make public more detailed, current, statistical information about its operations regarding privacy protection, and submit an annual report on its work to Parliament, as does the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).”

Of course, to hardcore conspiracists, that’s like taking a convicted fraud’s unaudited financial statements at face value.

Still, Ms. Bernier remained undeterred. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, she insisted her report was a rallying cry for clarity and accountability. What’s more, she said, “When you look at our recommendations, quite a few are low-hanging fruit. Quite a few could be implemented immediately.”

Which is why quite a few of them probably won’t. The same goes for any meaningful government response on income inequality.

The respective issues are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Each boils down to rough conceptions of fairness and justice. Each posits villains and victims. Each’s mythology depends on the noble travails of the plucky little guy who must endure the hob-nailed boots of the powerful elite’s henchmen.

Those are marvelous messages for governments with pretensions of  progressivism to exploit. Indeed, Barack Obama and his quasi-crusading band of faint-hearted social democrats are all over the income-disparity and big-brother issues in the U.S., alternately making the former the subject of the 2014 state of the union address and the latter the handmaiden for stinging rebukes of the National Security Agency.

Not so for the Government of Canada. Late last year, one of its committees quietly shelved an extensive report that measured income inequality across the country. At the same time, Ottawa continued to support the work of its spy agencies despite a gathering lobby of both expert and public opinion against many of their practices.

True reform, of course, is a messy business. And few governments, despite their pretensions to high-minded purpose, are temperamentally inclined and logistically equipped to render the society they temporarily govern any fairer or more just than it was before they rode into power.

Still, the sleepers have awoken, and soon political leaders may have no other choice than to share the spotlight with them in the prime time of the world’s attention.

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