You don’t hear much about deregulation any more from politicians. What we hear a lot about is more and tougher regulation, or at least the appearance of it, as the government struggles to keep up with the violent electoral shift against neoliberalism. Thus there’s constant talk about tighter regulation and more aggressive regulators for the banks, and “big sticks” for energy companies, and royal commissions into aged care.
But it was not always thus. Labor even had a portfolio for deregulation in the Rudd era, as part of Lindsay Tanner’s finance portfolio. And Tony Abbott came into office promising $1 billion in savings from deregulation — a figure about as rigorous as the rest of his promises — and held Deregulation Days in which hundreds of regulations were repealed, presided over by then-parly sec Josh Frydenberg. That most of the regulations were irrelevant relics controlling the hours for lighthouse keepers’ lunches, how often a cadet had to drill for and prohibitions on distilling was less important than the neoliberal ethos of deregulation that nothing should impede the ability of businesses to make money.
Not industrial relations laws keeping workers safe and fairly remunerated. Not financial services laws keeping planners and banks from ripping off customers. Not any kind of “red tape”. Nor “green tape”, as environmental regulation was dubbed. Nor “black tape”, as some bigot coined requirements relating to Indigenous community approvals.
And not animal welfare regulation, as the review of the Department of Agriculture’s handling of live export regulation by Philip Moss last week showed. Fairfax’s Latika Bourke did a great piece on Barnaby Joyce’s role as agriculture minister in stripping animal welfare protections around live export, leading directly to the sickening nightmare of sheep being boiled alive in their own shit on sub-standard ships run by exporters who time and again, over and over, breached even the minimal animal welfare standards “imposed” by Joyce’s department.
Bourke absolutely nailed Joyce’s role in this disgusting episode, one that his successor David Littleproud has been trying to clean up for most of the year while a number of his colleagues, and most of the rest of the parliament, wants to ban the whole sordid, monstrous industry.
Joyce’s attack on animal welfare regulation — we went through it in detail earlier this year — was part of the Abbott government’s Brave New World of deregulation. Joyce’s department even produced its own glossy report on its deregulatory achievements, as part of a requirement for all departments to advertise their victories in the war on tape of varying hues, although oddly the reports were less frequent under the Turnbull government, as if no one wanted to Mention The War anymore.
In his 2014 report, Joyce boasted of “Abolishing the Inspector-General of Animal Welfare” for a regulatory saving of $25,000, “simplifying livestock export consignment approvals” ($6,000), abandoning the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy ($1300). The live export industry was allowed to start torturing sheep to death for a grand saving of $32,300. Now, of course, the government is rushing to appoint an Inspector-General.
Joyce also sacked the Animal Welfare Branch of his department, further undermining an already weak regulatory culture that, as Moss points out, was divided between a central office notionally interested in animal welfare standards and field staff “on the ground” who were in effect co-opted by the industry they were ostensibly regulating.
But here’s the thing about the Nationals deregulating live exports. It wasn’t blind adherence to a neoliberal ideology — indeed, the Nationals are normally hostile to market economics — but good business for the Nationals and for the Coalition. One beneficiary of the deregulation was Fremantle-based Wellard Rural Exports. Since 2010-11, Wellard has given $125,000 to the WA Liberals and $30,000 to the WA Nationals, according to Australian Electoral Commission figures. Another live exporter in the beef trade, Pardoo, has given $167,000 to the WA Nats.
No wonder the animals didn’t get a look-in under Joyce.