There’s no doubting the ruthlessness with which the Abbott government yesterday went about slashing at the dense foliage of regulation that has trapped the Australian economy in a gloomy thicket of undergrowth and low productivity. Like a logger with a chainsaw heading into forest too long locked up by mad greenies, it has started felling the tall timber of regulatory tyranny.

So, under the Amending Acts 1901 to 1969 Repeal Bill 2014 the lights have been turned off for the Lighthouses Acts — all six of them, starting from 1916. It’s last drinks for the Distillation Acts — all 11 of them. Time’s been called on the nine Spirits Acts, right back to 1915. There’s no more room for the 25 War Services Homes Acts after the Great War and World War II (and, sadly, the War Services Estate Acts as the period after the relevant conflict lengthens). The Defence Act 1911 — one of 32 Defence Acts being repealed — which regulates how long a senior cadet drills for, is now being drummed out.

One could go on. Some 1100-old acts up to 1969 are being repealed, dead letters all of them, dead as the legislators who passed them, men in hats who railed at the Hun, considered whether states or the Commonwealth should run lighthouses and pondered licensing for “spirit makers and vignerons”, cutting-edge legislation in its day, now historical curios for 21st-century smartarses to mock. If nothing else, ComLaw might load quicker with 1100 fewer acts in the system.

The real deregulatory action was in the other bill, the Omnibus Repeal Day (Autumn 2014) Bill 2014, which laid out 10 schedules of amendments to existing legislation to slash red tape, deregulate, etc (they repeal a few old acts as well, but not on the scale of 1901-69 slaughter). Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was so proud of one change to the Broadcasting Services Act he used it as a question time example: the Australian Communications and Media Authority now has a freer hand to consider complaints made to it “if the ACMA thinks that it is desirable to do so”, rather than at the moment, where it has to consider complaints unless “the complaint is frivolous or vexatious or was not made in good faith”. Lenore Taylor has elsewhere spotted George Brandis’ war on hyphens. In the Industry portfolio, an act for the administration of the now-replaced Automotive Competitiveness Investment Scheme is repealed, and a definition in another act is carefully amended to refer to the “former” scheme.

If you’re getting the impression the war on deregulation is less about unclogging the narrowed arteries of the Australian economy and allowing it to breathe the air that, erm, free economies breathe and more about the theatre of scrapping dead letters and fiddling with trivia, you wouldn’t be overly mistaken. Stakeholders in affected areas have been poring over the amendment bills to see if the government has sought to sneak through any big changes, but it has been upfront about the significant ones and few shocks lurked in the schedules yesterday, though that’s not to rule out intentional or otherwise changes being revealed by keen-eyed stakeholders.

One change the government was upfront about was its dumping of the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, which wasn’t hidden in the schedules but the subject of its own separate bill. The role of the monitor — currently Bret Walker SC — was to assess national security legislation and determine whether it was still necessary. Australia has a vast array of draconian and wholly unnecessary counter-terrorism laws that eroded basic rights like not being detained without due process, which have regularly been extended to give agencies like the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation more and more power.

As Prime Minister Tony Abbott correctly noted, the previous government ignored Walker’s laborious work — in particular, his 2012 recommendation that control orders and preventive detention orders don’t work and should be abolished. The government says it will consider all of his reports but his work is now done. But does anyone seriously think Walker’s recommendations about removing some of the most Kafkaesque elements of our national security laws won’t simply be left on the shelf?

Because when it comes to basic civil liberties versus the demands of national security agencies and the politicians who exploit national security for political advantage, governments only ever regulate. They never deregulate.

Peter Fray

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