How can we make up for democracy failure?

Politicians like to talk about market failure, the parts of life the market cannot reach. It justifies politicians’ place in the scheme of things. They don’t often talk about democracy failure.

I don’t mean the election expenses disgrace which the police last week compounded: a case to answer was found but no answer shall be called for. Happily for the police, the election result accurately reflected the country’s mood, so the matter will now fade.

By democracy failure I mean the blocks in our system that turn most big issues into footballs. Which is a bother, because it falls to politicians and government officials to provide what the market does not.

The infrastructure deficit is a big example. Market failure has left us with roads too small to meet demand, a real danger of too little electricity and serious issues about water. (More on water in tomorrow’s Business Herald.)

But infrastructure is also a case of democracy failure. Politicians at all levels get more voting milage out of combat than consensus — even on matters of vital national importance.

John Key’s carping response for the National party to the Auckland road pricing report on Friday is a case in point: apparently the roads are too small because there haven’t been any public-private partnerships.

Actually, the roads are too small because Key’s party in government in the 1990s did too little market failure correction and then in this decade economic growth far outstripped expectations.

To give the Clark government credit — which Aucklanders, especially the Employers and Manufacturers Association, seem disinclined to do — it has greatly expanded the road programme.

Though the penny took some time to drop for the Clark government because it focused initially on fixing up the alleged “failed policies of the nineties” in accordance with its ideology and to fulfil pledges to its interest groups, it has since 2003 taken infrastructure seriously.

That is because, far from being a discretionary item, investment in infrastructure is a critical ingredient in productivity growth and productivity growth is critical to raising quantitative living standards. Moreover, infrastructure is not just roads, energy and water but also “soft” investment such as science, education, the internet — even sport and culture.

Nevertheless, to be fair to Key, the Clark government has also missed some beats.

It has, for example, been half-hearted about demand. The energy efficiency officials have become good at writing reports but not action. Now that Jeanette Fitzsimons is “government spokesperson” on energy efficiency it will be interesting to see how far the cabinet backs her.

Only on Friday, with its Auckland road pricing options, did it at last offer something on road demand. And it reached for yesterday’s options instead of adding tomorrow to the equation.

Half a decade ago some senior officials were excitedly talking about GPS tolling — by satellite — supplementing and then gradually replacing hubodometers on heavy vehicles and then petrol and diesel tax on lighter vehicles. Frankfurt is trialling this now. We can expect go-ahead states like Singapore and Hong Kong to move that way.

But the noises from the cabinet are that we can almost certainly rule out even a toe in the GPS water this parliamentary term. National’s Maurice Williamson has been in Britain studying GPS technology but didn’t return my call. Till now his mantra has been to turn over all the petrol tax to road building, which in effect is robbing the rest of the government machine to buy roads.

But it doesn’t take high technology to prompt democracy failure.

There is wide public agreement that there is an infrastructure deficit and that a durable programme to fix it is needed — enough, if translated into seats in Parliament, to form a large majority.

But the two main parties act as if that majority does not exist. Our system requires an opposition party to make maximum mincemeat of government policies, even sometimes in crisis. The attempt at a unified second world war cabinet was compromised when Sir Sidney Holland withdrew three months after he became leader.

This leaves the initiative and blame/praise with the government of the day. Attempts are sometimes made to get cross-party agreement, notably Jim Bolger’s short-lived three-way superannuation accord which included Labour. There is political consensus on free trade. The Clark government has turned public consultation into a national ritual.

But mostly governments seek to coopt, rather than compromise with, oppositions. Political consensus forms, if at all, after the event. An example is that on nuclear bombs which National finally seems to be accepting.

Which gives a clue. Since politicians too often don’t generate agreed action from above, the alternative is to grow it from below.

But that is exactly what representative democracy of our sort is supposed to facilitate, by distilling form out of fractiousness. Hmmm.