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Wednesday, 18 March 2015
Page: 2700

Mr BURKE (WatsonManager of Opposition Business) (09:15): It is with pleasure that I notice that after some noise back and forth across the chamber that was carried unanimously! I acknowledge that. How these days have changed. When we came to parliament today I thought it might be like the old repeal days with all the fanfare. We even had a thunderstorm. The elements were coming together to bring about the death of red tape! The previous ministerial statements on this were given by the Prime Minister, the galleries were full and we were told that they were going to be an extraordinary part of the deregulation agenda of this government. I think the parliamentary secretary has probably given a more honest presentation than we have had previously on what these days involve in that there was an acknowledgement, which I was pleased to hear, in the ministerial statement that we need to distinguish between well-designed and poorly designed regulation. The concept that you measure regulation by the kilo, which is how these arguments have been presented previously, holds no public policy merit at all.

I note that since the last red tape repeal day we have had changes from the government announced, for example, on product labelling for food, on the purchase of foreign land and on data retention. All of these involve significant changes and increases in regulation. All of these are supported by the government. I make no negative comment here about those particular measures but will simply say that the argument that you measure by the kilo how many acts and regulations you are getting rid of in order to claim whether or not you are doing something good for the nation is absurd. I hope that with the more measured response we have had from the parliamentary secretary today it means we are nearing the end of the absurdity of how these days have been conducted in the past.

Let's face it: there has never been a government from either side of politics in the history of the Commonwealth that has done anything other than made sure that, as they do annual cleanouts, old regulations get taken off the books. We all do it. The difference is that this has been the first government that has wanted rounds of applause for doing the ordinary work of government. We are told on this occasion that there are 890 acts and 160 legislative instruments that will go. When we were in office, we got rid of 16,794 acts and legislative instruments, and I take no comfort at all in the number. Yes, 16,000 was a bigger number than what we are talking about today, but who cares? The number of regulations and acts is not the point.

In previous red tape repeal days we have had acts that were clearly irrelevant and had absolutely no impact on the rest of the nation being taken off the books for reasonable housekeeping purposes, but they did not warrant the fanfare that occurred. We were told at the first red tape repeal day that the number included the abolition of a previous regulation that allowed the Commonwealth to take control of a mule or bullock for military purposes. It was some time since that had been used. There were not too many owners of mules or bullocks who were counting the cost to their business of that regulation still being around. It was reasonable to get rid of it, but absurd to get excited about it.

Similarly, we had the abolition of state navies, which had not existed since something like 1913. It was around that date since states had made any use of those provisions. It was sensible to get rid of them. Maybe there was a time, when he was a state politician, when the member opposite may have considered it, but it was not something that was making any difference at all to businesses in Australia. It was not making any difference at all to the cost of compliance in Australia. This is why the total numbers are so completely unhelpful. We need to distinguish between so-called red tape that makes a difference and the ordinary cleaning and housework of government.

There is a announcement in the ministerial statement—I concede that I have had a chance to go through the report—of a total deregulatory saving since September 2013 of $2.45 billion. I do not dispute the figure. I have not been able to find it in the report. If the figure is as it is presented then I presume the government is not including those savings that have not been implemented. The minister statement is worded:

Today the government also announced that the total deregulatory saving since September 2013, is $2.45 billion.

On page 19 of the report there is a table that shows a figure for 'decisions taken' of $2.315. If this figure is simply an addition to that—as to what has happened since the date of the report—then it presumes those savings yet to be implemented have been implemented.

The reason I raise this is that $824 million of the figures that have been quoted around here have not be implemented. That is because the government is so passionate about this legislation that the last repeal day legislation still has not made it through the parliament. It went to the Senate. There was an amendment. The government says that they do not like the amendment, even though they did not divide on in the Senate, but they have never bothered to send it back. So it is just hanging around here, waiting for a day when the Leader of the House will decide to ask the Clerk to bring it on so that we can send a message back.

But if this matters at all—if these days are meant to be important and are meant to be a centrepiece of the deregulation agenda of the government—you would think they could be bothered taking three minutes of parliamentary time to send a message back to the Senate. But they have never bothered to do so. So the legislation is just hanging around here with a message from the Senate that we have not responded to. As a result, I presume—given that the $2.45 billion figure does not appear in the report at all—that the figure is actually fictitious, because there is more than 800 million of it that the government has not bothered to advance, has not bothered to send back.

Maybe they are embarrassed about the fact that we have a dispute between the houses over a set of bills that are principally about punctuation—because that is what those bills dealt with. We have previously got excited in this parliament on our big repeal days—with statements from the Prime Minister—where there have been changes to legislation such as changing 'e-mail' with a hyphen to 'email' without a hyphen, and changing 'facsimile' to 'fax'. And then there has been the audacity to attach to those bills some hundreds of thousands of dollars of estimated savings to the business community by making those changes. It has never been explained to the public how you can quantify a saving to the Australian economy by the removal of a hyphen but if it can be done, good on the government for finding the way through to a punctuation-led recovery, because that is the absurdity of what we have consistently seen in these repeal days.

Sadly, in the repeal days we have had, there has been the occasional measure which has made a difference to people. And the worst of these what was done in the name of red tape repeal to the wages of cleaners working for the Commonwealth. Let's not forget: there was an amendment passed by the Senate, accepted reluctantly by the government, following the first repeal day, when they wanted to get rid of the Commonwealth cleaning guidelines. They wanted to get rid of them and, as a result, take away protections for cleaners. The first thing that happened was that the government accepted that amendment, and we had a discussion in the parliament, when it came back here, about how good it was that that amendment had been accepted. Within 24 hours, they found another way to get rid of the guidelines anyway.

Having done so, the Prime Minister stood up in this chamber and told us that no cleaner's wage would be cut as a result of that decision. But, the moment the first set of tenders to act on that regulation having been removed went through, cleaners' wages were cut. Today we have some of the most modestly paid people, who work as a result of Commonwealth contracts, finding themselves on $2 an hour less. I think it is wrong to cut their pay. I think it is wrong to get rid of the guidelines. But I think it is straight-out offensive to do it in the name of cutting red tape and to claim that deducting $2 an hour for a cleaner was a red tape provision after the Prime Minister stood up and claimed that there would be no cuts to cleaners' wages, thinking that people on modest wages might not notice when their wages went down by $2 an hour.

It shows two things. It shows the willingness of this government to do anything they can to attack the wages and conditions of people on modest incomes. Secondly, it shows the audacity of those opposite that they tried to pretend that that was a red tape measure. No-one on those sorts of wages regards their take-home pay as an example of red tape. It was nothing to be proud of. If the government wanted to deal with it, they should have done so head-on and honestly. I do not blame the parliamentary secretary at the table for this. He was not responsible for the plan that caused that. But the assistant minister, who he thanked in that ministerial statement, was responsible for that. The measure itself I opposed, but that can be part of genuine political debate. Tying it up as a red tape reform is straight-out offensive.

I welcome the fact that a deregulation report has been tabled. There remain a number of ongoing questions, including: how do the government deal with legislation that they are not willing to send back to the Senate and that they have not cared enough about to deal with at all? But overwhelmingly it deals with the fact that red tape is something that both sides of politics have attacked. In the order of $4 billion a year was saved through the seamless national economy reforms which were done when we were in government. There were no objections from those opposite when we made those reforms, largely. That is the sort of work that the parliament continues to do.

But let's not pretend that this government are only getting rid of red tape. There are times when they introduce it, and there are times when they introduce it with bipartisan support. We need to have a more sensible discussion than what we have had on previous occasions when we have tried to measure this by the kilo and claim that more is being done. In this parliament, it is always the overreach that gets you. It is overreach that has been the government's principal mistake on previous red tape repeal days. (Time expired)