Commonsense, infrastructure and social (in)cohesion

Third-term-itis is an insidious virus. The latest symptom is Michael Woodhouse’s worms/minigolf/curtain-hanging list of dangerous workplaces. The virus can detach from commonsense those it afflicts.

Woodhouse is actually a sensible fellow with a background in practical business management.

But he needed Peter Dunne’s vote for the exemptions in his workplace safety bill required by constituencies such as farmers, constituencies the cabinet must keep onside to get a fourth term. That required exemptions to the exemptions.

The result, from officials via Woodhouse, was the strange list of what is dangerous and what is not. It is not dangerous to farm cattle but dangerous to grow feed for cattle.

All cabinets, but especially one with third-term-itis, need a “hey but” person testing proposals against commonsense.

Labour, more usually the party of vexatious or injudicious constituency-driven rules, says the danger list has undermined confidence in the bill which as stands is unworkable.

National’s risk in over-attending to tender constituencies is that the line of sight each way between ministers and middle New Zealand might get clouded and Winston Peters might get more into that sightline.

That is not to say this cabinet is out of ideas or strategic capacity.

Example: last week it issued a 30-year infrastructure plan, completing work begun in 2010.

The plan does not set out a list of projects. In any case most have to be done by local councils, which must by law develop 30-year plans. The central government plan is more high-level and focused on what enabling action needs to be taken up to 2019 and in some cases beyond 2020.

One item is starkly clear: “Where possible the government will favour private markets for the provision and ownership of infrastructure” because “market disciplines” achieve “great efficiency and better outcomes”. It wants a trans-Tasman procurement market.

A Labour-Green government will likely differ.

The plan notes the need to keep up with new technologies, though on electricity it does not appear to factor in individual generation by householders and small businesses which is reshaping the “grid” in Europe and which might reduce the need for power lines.

The plan pushes for more consistent national governance. Water doesn’t have a coordinating national body, which the Transport Agency is for roads.

It wants more consistency in regulation, especially the Resource Management Act. It notes the changing regional population mix, which will have a big impact on local ability to pay.

The focus is heavily on hard infrastructure: roads, water, electricity, school and hospital buildings.

But it does note that the “climate is changing” and “sea levels are expected to rise 30 centimetres by 2050”. That implies major works by many councils, which so far the government has done little to assist. The plan talks of natural resources depletion and limits.

That is as far as the plan goes there but it is not a long step for innovative thinkers to argue the environment is also infrastructure, not a tradable.

It is not a long step from there to treating social cohesion as infrastructure.

And embedded inequality is fraying social cohesion.

One who thinks that is Peter Georgescu, chair of Young and Rubicam, an advertising agency operating in 93 countries.

In an August 7 New York Times article he said what scared him — and “my friend Ken Langone, a founder of Home Depot” and “many other chief executives” — was not Al Qaeda or the Islamic State but “where income inequality will lead”.

He worried that it would lead to “major social unrest” or “oppressive taxes”.

Advocating for capitalism, Georgescu said “business has the most to gain and the most to lose”. So businesses should “invest in the actual value creators, the employees” with “a wage that enables employees to share amply in productivity increases and creative innovations”. And they should invest in productivity and innovation instead of earnings-inflating share buybacks.

Georgescu said he and Langone “find almost unanimous agreement on the nature of the problem and the urgent need for solutions” (but no action) among business leaders they talk to.

These are not wistful Labourites. They are in business in the United States, land of the market.

Georgescu’s worry raises issues for conservatives here. Woodhouse’s zero hours measure can be interpreted as legalising, not proscribing, them.

The risk for National is that, as household finances tighten, growing numbers might take the United States and Europe populist route, where wacky left, right and secessionist parties are pushing miracle cures.

So far, we don’t have the equivalent in scale of a United States Tea party or a Greek Syriza or a French National Front. Nor — yet — is Labour here lurching like British Labour into throwback leftism.

Not least, that is because one antidote to populism is strategic policy like the infrastructure plan.

But too much third-term-itis could flip the switch.