Whenever you hear a politician talking about deregulation, it’s a good idea to tune out. And as time goes on, that becomes ever more true.
Probably the only government that ever came to office not promising to cut red tape was Edmund Barton’s, but it’s now de rigueur to arrive with lots of pomp and ceremony on the issue. First Kevin Rudd decided to have a minister for deregulation, which happened to be Lindsay Tanner. Tony Abbott, having promised to save a billion dollars through deregulation, doesn’t have a minister for it, but has focussed on removing environmental protections and set his parliamentary secretary Josh Frydenberg on the case establishing, according to journalist Laura Tingle, deregulation units within each department.
That’s not unexpected in the sense that the abiding theme of the Howard government’s “deregulation” efforts was to establish more and more senseless bureaucracy within the public service to slow down any real work. An Office of Regulation Reform was set up to police regulation impact statements. As time went on, impact statements of various other kinds — regional, family, small business — proliferated like buboes within the cabinet requirements.
The only real victims of this fight-red-tape-with-red-tape approach, apart from grumpy bureaucrats, were ministers who watched their cabinet submissions get bogged down while approvals for impact statements were pulled from other departments like teeth.
Putting a tiny version of ORR, or OBPR as it was renamed in the Rudd years, inside every department will make for interesting recruitment — how many public servants will be lining up to become the most loathed people in their departments? Maybe the dead wood who are supposed to be axed as part of the 12,000 reduction in APS numbers under the new government.
But the political dimension to deregulation isn’t confined to such absurdist theatre. It shapes what is considered appropriate for deregulation. And there are a range of areas of deregulation where both sides of politics will, it seems, never venture, not because there isn’t productivity to be obtained from deregulating those areas, but because the politics is too difficult.
So we’ll tune out on any further discussion of deregulation until a government embraces some of the following areas of genuine deregulation …
- Communications portfolio: get rid of mollycoddling of the free-to-air TV networks that sees them protected from competition — the ban on a fourth network — and competition for sports rights (the anti-siphoning list). Dump the 75% reach rule. Get rid of universal service obligations for post and telecommunications and subsidies for unprofitable services. Overturn the Howard government’s bans on internet gambling and discussing euthanasia online. End the licensing requirements for subscription TV, making it easier for new subscription TV businesses to get started, including offshore online downloading platforms. Ditch Liberal MP Paul Fletcher’s anti-free speech proposal to force social media companies to take down material deemed offensive by the government.
- Industry portfolio: dump the 5% tariff on imported vehicles and the de facto ban on importing second-hand vehicles. Dump local preference rules for the federal government, so the Commonwealth procures based on cost-effectiveness only. And while we’re on dumping, dump pseudo-protectionist anti-dumping rules.
- Treasury: get rid of our obscurantist foreign investment rules that provide no certainty for investors, in favour of a transparent, streamlined process that gives investors a clear understanding of what will and what won’t be approved. Show that Australia really is “open for business” despite what the Nationals say. Waving through the proposed Archer Daniels Midland bid for Grain Corp would be a good start, and force both sides to reveal what they argued before FIRB. Increase funding for the Productivity Commission and Australian Bureau of Statistics to enable more information and analysis to inform policy debate — a monthly CPI would be a good start. More money for the ACCC to more effectively police increasingly uncompetitive domestic markets.
- Health: end the monopoly of the pharmacy industry on dispensing PBS medication. Remove regulations designed to encourage people to take up private health insurance. And ditch community rating and government approval of private health insurance premium rises.
- Transport: adopt an open skies policy, rather than the current antiquated trade negotiation-style bartering for access. Dump absurd security theatre measures at airports and on aircraft that simply cost money without adding significantly to safety. Reverse the regulated monopolies on airport activities at Sydney Airport and elsewhere established when the Commonwealth flogged off airports in the 1990s; force more competition (by more regulation if necessary) into areas such as parking, services and transport, including better public transport. And make a decision on a second Sydney airport immediately.
- COAG: start using threats to cut off Commonwealth grants if states don’t expedite implementation of regulatory harmonisation, remove remaining restrictions on a national water market and address housing supply by removing local government capacity to stymie property development. Pressure governments to deregulate the taxi industry.
- Others: dump compulsory voting and public funding of political parties, which only benefits media companies. Cut the Human Rights Commission back to handling genuine complaints about human rights breaches. Remove restrictions on who can marry whom. And don’t touch the $1000 GST-free import threshold.
Many of these would offend powerful interests, of course. Some would even offend the Coalition’s close friends, like the private health insurance industry. It would be a clear signal of a genuine commitment to economic reform if this government indeed took on some of these challenges. That’s the mark of a great government, that it is prepared to offend its own supporters in pursuit of economic reform. That’s what the Hawke-Keating government did, bravery that no other government has ever managed.
Instead, we’ll probably get a lot of talk, and bureaucrats will be made to jump through even more hoops, but the big cuts to red tape that might deliver real results will be ignored.