Why voters are revolted (and revolting)

As I write this piece, I’m struck by a number of current news events: Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz have won the Wisconsin primaries; Tesla has accumulated 350,000 orders, with deposits, for its newest model; the Dutch are holding a referendum to vote for or against a trade deal their government has largely implemented with Ukraine; and, the Icelandic Prime Minister has resigned. What you might rightly ask, do these events possibly have in common and how are they relevant to Atlantic Canada?

The U.S. election scene is like a crazy soap opera and there are still many episodes to go! I have long maintained that the average voter may not be well informed about current affairs, but that should not be confused with a lack of common sense. The middle class has not managed any meaningful income growth in the past 15 years, the income inequality gap continues to grow and technology promises to displace more and more jobs. People are not just worried, they’re fed up. Sanders, Cruz and Trump are all candidates who just 10 years ago wouldn’t have gotten to first base. Yet neither Hilary nor Kasich have been able to score any points by calling out their opponents for their misguided and in some cases, absolutely irrational policy ideas. Presumably in Hilary’s case this is because her credibility has been damaged by the FBI investigation, ignoring policy around the use of a personal email account for government business and the extent to which she and Bill have scored huge fees for speeches at the behest of the corporate types seen to be at the heart of America’s economic problems. Voters are desperate for real, meaningful change and anyone who is not associated with the traditional political elite.

Tesla is a relatively new car company, with no dealership network, that has successfully launched a new vehicle largely through free PR as opposed to a massive paid advertising campaign. And most of the folks who placed these orders won’t get their cars for two or more years. What does this mean? It must be that the consumer is becoming more demanding in one sense but more willing to trust a brand in another; more sophisticated and more willing to break with tradition, more informed and more confident. This is good. And it is evidence that consumers can’t be lead around by the proverbial ring in the nose.

The Dutch plebiscite is bizarre. Launched by a group operating under a slogan which translates to “Not a Clue” (referring to their views of the European Union), this vote seeks to overturn an agreement which removes trade barriers and promotes economic activity between Europe and Ukraine. Its goal is to help Ukraine move away from the influence and control of Russia and Mr. Putin’s desire to destabilize the country. Why on earth would such a treaty be so upsetting to the average Dutch voter? Obviously, it must be the general level of dissatisfaction resident within the perception that Brussels is impersonal, distant, elitist, and generally out of touch. People just don’t trust their existing political leadership and governance structures.

Want more evidence? Look to Iceland where the Prime Minister’s only crime seems to be that he married a rich wife, who paid her Icelandic taxes but wanted to keep her wealth secret by storing it in an offshore company. I get that he did himself no favours by failing to disclose this, but it wasn’t/isn’t his money: it’s his wife’s. There is no allegation that he made it and gave it to her to hide, or that she or her family made it illegally. People are simply intolerant of any failure to be completely transparent. They want to be able to trust their leadership and react badly when they think that trust has been violated.

So now to Atlantic Canada, where we have huge fiscal problems, the worst demographics in the country, an over-burdened and unsustainable health care system, a lousy P to 12 education system and a stagnant population. We want leadership on these big structural issues. We are desperate for meaningful, progressive reform. No talk, no excuses, no studies. The population is not stupid. We know about these problems, and yes, many are afraid of the consequences of change and how they might be impacted. But they also understand that the present course is unsustainable and I know enough about leadership to assure our Premiers that if you give the public honesty, transparency, a sense of how difficult and grave the situation really is and how long and rocky the road to solutions might be, they will give you patience and support in return.

I hope someone out there is listening. Please.

John Risley
About John Risley

John Risley, president of Clearwater Fine Foods Inc., regularly engages in policy debate as a member of the World Presidents' Organization, the Chief Executives Organization and as a director on the Board of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

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