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Federal

Dec 2, 2011

Time-honoured rituals of regulation live on

Tony Abbott's promise to slash red tape is a time-honoured Canberra ritual, but it's a hollow promise. And he should shake up his front bench to inject more policy nous into the mix.

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There are certain rituals of public life for oppositions, regardless of their composition, that will never change. One is confidently claiming that billions of dollars of wasted spending are lying around, like so much playground litter, waiting for an incoming government to gather up to fund its own programs. Another is insisting the burden of “red tape” is remorselessly accumulating on business and needs a machete taken to it to save — invariably — billions of dollars.

Tony Abbott went through that all again yesterday, mouthing the same words that generations of politicians before him have uttered about regulation. He added to them another timeless political incantation, that of the importance of small business, that household god to whom all politicians must genuflect. He pledged to save small business $1 billion a year by cutting red tape.

Actually, he pledged that back in May. It was one of the few details of his otherwise content-free budget reply. But he got another round of headlines today for the rehash. He also committed to establish a deregulation taskforce, “tasked with talking to the businesses of Australia to find example after example of intrusive and burdensome regulation, intrusive and unnecessary compliance costs”.

“The Productivity Commission has recently estimated that red tape reduction could add $12 billion a year to Australia’s GDP,” averred Abbott.

That’s not strictly correct. In fact it was the Howard government’s Regulation Taskforce (deregulation and taskforces go well together, apparently) which arrived at that conclusion, in 2006, in its report to the Howard government on the burdens it was imposing on business. Productivity Commission chairman and rugged individualist Gary Banks, who was on the taskforce, likes to cite the figure in speeches.

This was in spite of that government’s professed obsession with deregulation and cutting red tape. It tried all sorts of gimmicks. In the late 1990s I found myself involved with an effort to put a timebox on every federal government form, so that businesses could quickly indicate how long filling out the form took. The results were then to be collated and used as a benchmark. Sadly, my own push for a tiny timebox within the timebox, in order to enable business to indicate how long it had taken to fill out the timebox itself, came to nought.

But some of us dutifully went along to the Office of Regulation Review to discuss it. The ORR was the body charged with overseeing regulatory impacts within government, and the bureaucratic equivalent of a shopping mall overrun by zombies. We wanted to discuss with them ways of integrating the timebox initiative with existing ORR processes, for the purposes of more efficient data-gathering within government.

“You’re not putting the bloody timebox in our process,” responded the ORR, ostensibly dedicated guardians of administrative efficiency but just as silo-bound as the rest of Canberra.

Indeed, the ORR — which in a fit of Ruddesque enthusiasm was renamed “The Office of Best Practice Regulation” and moved to Finance in 2008 — may have been charged with making life easier for business, but its raison d’être was making life difficult for the rest of the bureaucracy by establishing a series of process hurdles through which you had to jump to get anything done. This was particularly the case around the requirement for regulation impact statements, the first what would eventually become seemingly dozens of impact statements for families, the regions, small business and any other interest group the Howard government wanted to appeal to.

The ideas behind RISs was that bureaucrats would have to justify to the satisfaction of the ORR new regulations imposed on business, imposing rigour on the process of creating new regulation. The problem, however, wasn’t inside the public service, but with ministers, who were forever churning out great ideas they wanted bureaucrats to implement post-haste, which invariably involved great swathes of additional regulation. Pollie, heal thyself. Each year, the ORR would rail about RISs left undone or poorly done, invariably by the likes of Treasury and Prime Minister and Cabinet, because they were rushing through some bright idea someone had had in cabinet.

The other interesting aspect of Abbott’s reheat yesterday was whom he appointed to head his deregulation taskforce: Arthur Sinodinos. Also on it are Kelly O’Dwyer and David Bushby (who might be able to address levels of feline regulation). Having secured the political equivalent of a Mercedes, Abbott seems content to idle it down to the bottom of his driveway and back to the garage. Sinodinos should have been given a shadow ministry.

Indeed, with the Peter Slipper affair pushing the prospect of an election off into the never-never for the moment, Abbott no longer has any excuse not to undertake the frontbench reshuffle he refused to do after the last election. The Liberals currently have one of the more talented backbenches in recent political history, with Steve Ciobo sent into exile, Jamie Briggs labouring in obscurity on government waste, Simon Birmingham playing second fiddle to Barnaby “Senator for Cubbie” Joyce on water and, now, O’Dwyer and Sinodinos engaged in the kabuki of deregulation. Dead wood like Bronwyn Bishop and Kevin Andrews need to be turfed in favour of new blood (and for that matter, Abbott should dump that loathsome spotted reptile, Cory Bernardi, from his parliamentary secretaryship).

With lots of talk of how Abbott needs to use the summer break to refresh his strategy and regain the momentum he had for nearly all of this year, a reshuffle would be an ideal start to the new political ear.

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