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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.


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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34 thoughts on “Time-honoured rituals of regulation live on

  1. Davies Ben

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0k2PmF-o5Q No need for regulation WHO REPEALLED THE GLASS STEAGAL ACT? Bill Clinton is a hero of the Democratic party yeah right!!!!!!


    http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1409 Murdoch joins board of the Cato Institute!!!! Working for other peoples slavery politicans and journalists!!!!!!


    http://www.lp.org/platform Tony Abbot is not a Conservative but a Libertarian!!! And when are journalists going to start asking Tony on what is the difference between Conservatives and Libertarians?

    The platform and agenda of the Libertarian Political Party or Cato Institute. Who elects Politicans to hand over complete control of a country to the banking sector? We don’t need government we can simply let the Banks write the rules. Somehow I think Tony has forgotten his English HERITAGE AND HISTORY!!!! William Tyler back in the 12th century did something that even King Richard The LionHeart had to actually return to England.

    Here you can clearly see all Libertarians believe in is giving banks an extra 3% of the total sum of a countries money supply to themselves. After 30 years it is no wonder where the world is. When is a journalist going to ask Tony Abbot or Julia Gillard on these DEMANDING ISSUES INHERIT IN OUR BANKING SYSTEM?

    Because this is what is going to happen if these policies are pursued!!!!

  2. Lord Barry Bonkton

    “A new political ear ” ?????????????????? Tony got his Big Ears from his days at the church .

  3. Damien

    Never ask a Canberra bureaucrat how to reduce red tape.

  4. Suzanne Blake

    Abbott should be replaced urgently

  5. Jimmy

    SB- For once we agree but who with, I would go for Turnbull but where does that leave the Libs on things like the the carbon tax?

  6. gregb

    Now that, SB, is the most sensible statement you’ve ever made here.

  7. Suzanne Blake

    @ Jimmy

    As I have said before, both parties are void of TRUE leaders. Smith would be better for Labor and I guess Turnbull, with a question mark over Fletcher.

  8. Archer

    Just bribe Peter Costello to return. He’ll handle Gillard at question time and scare Swan for good measure.

  9. Gavin Moodie

    I remain mystified why Liberal supporters believe Costello would be a good leader. He is meretricious, certainly, but in the end vacuous. Each time after his non-challenges of Howard he said he would speak broadly outside his portfolio but each time he produced nothing more than platitudes. What policy would Costello have on . . . anything? What new idea would he contribute to the Coalition? What would he contribute beyond clever put-downs in Parliament?

  10. john2066

    Actually, I work in small business, I dont normally agree with Tony Abbott, but I do here, red tape is out of control. There is a creeping tide of pointless overregulation, ohs, ‘privacy’ laws, all rubbish, all making business virtually impossible. We do urgently need to cut red tape.

  11. AR

    GavinM – I doubt very much that you meant Costello is “meretricious”, which you seem to think means ‘meticulous’ or ‘of merit’ – look it up.
    I, however, think it the perfect description of him.

  12. Gavin Moodie

    ‘Red tape’ is always decried in the abstract and retained in the specific. So the moment you give a particular example of red tape – GST compliance used to be a favourite of small business – there’s a dozen justifications for it, in this case protecting public revenue.

    Personally, I find privacy protection a nuisance and most privacy fears exaggerated. But there is manifest public concern about privacy intrusions – mostly by big business, and, ironically, by government. So while privacy protection is clearly inefficient and is also in my view irrational, it is wanted by many citizens.

  13. Gavin Moodie

    Meretricious is precisely how I consider Costello in the sense of ‘Apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity’. As I wrote, I think he is vacuous and I remain mystified why any Liberal supporter thinks he may be a good leader.

  14. AR

    GavM – do you have Bowdlerised dictionary? The primary meaning is “of, or befitting, a prostitute”, from the root (sic!) meretrix – tricis = harlot which is derived from mereri = to hire.
    However, the secondary, euphemistic, meaning which you cite is spot on for the Smirk, deservedly forgotten before he fled the arena.
    As demonstrsated by how well the corporate sector regards him – no sinecures or consultancies yet but it’s only been ….umm.. 4 years.

  15. Gavin Moodie

    Both the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary and the Macquarie Dictionary give the tawdry definition first and the prostitute definition of meretricious later.

  16. AR

    GavM – Not in my Concise Oxford, sixth edition, 1976.

  17. Gavin Moodie

    The point of a dictionary is to give the meaning of words in their current usage, not their meaning 35 years ago.

  18. AR

    How could I have guessed that you’d play the “current usage” card. Why do you imagine that I gave you the etymology? You probably think “fulsome, as the current usage has it when referring to praise, means “lotsa”.
    The damp squid is finding it a hard road to hoe, sigh and throw another book on the fire.

  19. Brian62

    Methinks Suzanne Blake is just Tony Flake in drag.?

  20. GocomSys

    Meretricious. (seeming to be good, useful, or important but not really having any value at all).
    Thanks Gavin. Very useful word indeed!

  21. Brian62

    Second thoughts I may be wrong “Abbott should be replaced urgently”@ Suzanne Blake,Peter (Victorian back to the future)Wreath? , it’s your choice.

  22. AR

    Alice Through the Looking Glass” –
    Humpty Dumpty “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”
    Alice “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things”
    H/D “The question is, which is to be master – that’s all … Impenetrability, that’s what I say!”
    And people wonder why it is difficult to conduct meaningful discussions in the public sphere.

  23. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    AR, pedantry check. You write that the “… damp squid is finding it a hard road to hoe, sigh and throw another book on the fire”. I thought that hoes were/are used to chip weeds from the rows of a crop – like cotton. So it would be a hard row to hoe….. The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary 1987 seems to confirm.

  24. AR

    HughMcC – sarcasm FAIL. Which makes my point about GavM’s ”current usage” cop-out.
    BTW, it’s “damp squib” – meaning an old type of firework hence my deliberate usage with “hard road” which are two common examples of “current usage”.
    The enormity of the errors in “current usage” is worrying because (1) those who understand english have to ponder what the scribblers thought that they meant, as distinct from what they actually wrote, and (2) even scarier, what the majority reading the sub-literate drivel (thought that they) understood from the, almost random, verbiage.
    If words have no agreed meaning, then there is no understanding, despite the best will in the world coz too much time is wasted asking “errr… ?”

  25. Gavin Moodie

    The notion of current language usage being wrong or having errors is oxymoronic. Words don’t have an agreed meaning, they have a common meaning. If a word’s current common meaning is inconsistent with its previous meaning or its etymology so be it – that is so common as to be trite. If current common usage is internally inconsistent again so be it – that is a feature of all languages including the most rigorous of all languages, mathematics.

    If a word doesn’t have a single common meaning it is ambiguous, which is also common. Usually an ambiguous term’s meaning may be inferred from its context and this is so frequent that it must be accepted as a normal characteristic of language. Occasionally the meaning of an ambiguous term cannot be inferred from its context and that poor usage is often due as much to poor sentence constructions as to poor vocabulary.

    Language changes continuously, both its vocabulary and grammar. To suggest that it shouldn’t change from some chosen point in time – usually the time of the advocate’s schooling – is arbitrary: why is that point preferred? While one may appreciate the language of the King James bible, Shakespeare or Chaucer, their usage was also internally inconsistent and in places ambiguous. They may be appreciated, but they are no longer models for current English.

  26. Jack Stepney

    @JOHN2066 “There is a creeping tide of pointless overregulation, ohs, ‘privacy’ laws, all rubbish, all making business virtually impossible”.

    There may be things that you wish you didn’t want to do but that doesn’t make them pointless. OHS is all about ensuring people don’t get injured or killed at work – doesn’t strike me as pointless unless you have an 18th century view of your workforce. As for privacy – just ask Sony about the PR disasters that can occur if you don’t lock up your customer records well enough.

  27. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    AR, you shouldn’t appoint yourself central scrutiniser in a pedantry circle and then make stuff up. In your last you wrote (note that I have cut and pasted your exact text): “BTW, it’s “damp squib” – meaning an old type of firework hence my deliberate usage with “hard road” which are two common examples of “current usage”.”
    Well, I hear what you are saying but you can’t (or won’t) read your own writing. Go back up to your 2 December at 9.12pm contribution. You wrote there “damp squid” (ie. wet calamari), that is what I quoted. You didn’t write “damp squib” as you claim, so the rest of your explanation is concocted fabulism. Not even a FAIL.

  28. zebbidie

    Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    AR was using a series of what are called eggcorns – see eggcorns.lascribe.net – common mishearings of phrases that are rewritten to make sense. He mentioned “Damp squib” because you failed to notice it first time through and it reinforced his point about people not understanding the language (a “damp squid” making more sense, if you don’t know what a squib is).

    Apart from that I agree with Gavin Moodie about usage. The language means what it means. Some words I regret losing the meaning of, some I don’t. Enormity is one that I think makes a lot more sense in its current incarnation. See Language Log for discussion ad infinitum.

  29. AR

    Zebbidie – thanks for bothering with HughMcC and the term “eggcorns”, of which I was unaware. I would of waited with baited breath alternates so shall let the thin edge of the wedge destroy what remains of intelligible discourse.
    As GavMoodie (eponymous, much?) sed, with a glimmer of awareness, “poor usage is often due as much to poor sentence constructions as to poor vocabulary..
    Must try harder.

  30. Schnappi

    Abbott is too tied up in the gay marriage situation,to be an arse or not to be an arse,to worry about anything of note,he wants to have two bob each way,instead of not giving a conscience vote,but then he is hedging his bet by saying the party room makes the decisions ,not him alone.
    Bet he goes to water and allows a conscience vote,just another erosion of his leadership.

  31. Peter Ormonde

    No No No Suzanne Blake …. Tony Abbott should not be replaced – not now – not ever. He’s the best Leader of the Opposition Labor could hope for.

  32. GocomSys

    In staying with the theme.

    No No No Suzanne Blake … You must not be replaced – not now – not ever. You are the best advocate for the dissenters the government could hope for.

  33. GocomSys

    “Abbott needs to use the summer break to refresh his strategy”.
    First he has to reinvent himself and that’s obviously impossible.

    “He has to regain the momentum he had for nearly all of this year”.
    The momentum provided courtesy of the media. Not for him to control.

    “A reshuffle would be an ideal start to the new political year”.
    Replacing hard liners and sycophants with small “l” liberals? Good bye Tony!

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