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Wednesday, 26 March 2014
Page: 3272

Mr WATTS (Gellibrand) (18:20): We have heard a familiar refrain from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and those opposite about how we are going to cut red tape, how we are going to save costs for small business and how we are going to save costs for big business. This is rhetoric that we have heard from every government for the last 20 years. We saw similar statements under the Howard government in the responses to the Bell report in 1997 and the Banks report in 2005, a report that the parliamentary secretary may be familiar with, given his professional role at the time. The Banks report projected that there would be 55,000 additional pages of regulation by the end of the noughties. That was a figure that was extrapolated from the level of regulatory growth that we saw in the period between 2001 and 2004, when the Howard government was in office. Clearly regulatory growth is not a partisan issue in this respect. As Gary Banks, the former chair of the Productivity Commission, acknowledged in his 2005 report:

Most regulation did not just happen… Each got there because a problem or need was brought to government’s attention, to which it responded.

In fact, the Banks report cited the knee-jerk regulatory response of the Howard government and gave it a title. It called it 'Alan Jones syndrome'. It stretches credibility to think that the Abbott government will be any less susceptible to the Alan Jones syndrome, identified by Gary Banks, a former chair of the Productivity Commission, than the Howard government. Does anyone here seriously believe this?

The reality is that reducing the impact of unnecessary regulation on our citizens and businesses is not easy. It requires tough choices, sometimes offending stakeholders or media outlets in the name of best practice regulation. It requires a government willing to make the tough choices necessary to make it happen. The Abbott government seems to think that it can make this happen without making tough choices. The parliamentary secretary made this clear when he stated that previous governments had promised deregulation and failed to deliver, but this time the government is serious and the reforms are real—very real. This time is different.

Unfortunately, the substance of these bills does not match the member for Kooyong's rhetoric. In fact, the government has delighted in making the most trivial of changes in these bills. After all, I am sure we all understand the importance of the Statute Law Revision Bill's vital changes to legislation—changing 'facsimile' to 'fax' and 'e-mail' to 'email'. For too long have unnecessary hyphens existed in our legislation! For too long have the Australian people suffered while these hyphens impeded the nation's economic progress! Small business owners in my electorate are rejoicing at being freed from this tyranny! I only ask why the bill under consideration did not wade into the controversy of the Oxford comma. What is the government's position on the use of semi-colons, colons and ellipses? This is to say nothing of the bonfire of inanities that is the Amending Acts 1901 to 1969 Repeal Bill. This bill makes the vital step of repealing 1,000 acts which were used to repeal other acts, but no longer have a substantive effect.

Unfortunately, overarching all this triviality is a superstructure of hypocrisy. The Abbott government claims to be genuinely interested in reducing the administrative burdens of regulation on everyday Australians, but, if you look at the overall actions of this government, you see a lot of noise over trivial regulatory cuts and silence over substantive regulatory increases.

Take the regulation in the communications sector that has come up in this debate. The member for Kooyong claimed, and I quote:

… we are determined to reduce duplicative regulatory requirements that exist between federal and state agencies and also between different federal agencies.

Some small cuts to the comms sector are included in these bills, I admit; yet, at the same time, other members of the coalition are proposing the introduction of an entirely new regulator in the comms sector, the e-safety commissioner. This commissioner would be empowered to order the removal of offensive content from social media sites should the operators not pull this content down in time. This regime would supplant a voluntary regime currently under operation between Google, Facebook and Microsoft, as signed with the previous government. Not only that but, as the IPA's Chris Berg has pointed out, this new proposal ignores the plethora of criminal law, defamation law, antistalking laws and harassment laws that already cover this area.

So, in the same month that we see these repeal bills, we see proposals from the government for new regulation that duplicates existing laws and usurps an existing voluntary scheme. The Abbott government is also proposing additional regulation of the comms industry to force ISPs to enforce copyright against end users and to retain customer data for national security purposes.

Labor believes that genuine red tape needs to be reduced. However, this takes hard choices—which brings me to a few accounting questions for the member for Kooyong. I went to his red tape website, which includes a handy track of the progress of the government in reducing red tape. It kicked off at $350 million of savings—and I am not sure how that started—but when the Prime Minister made his announcement on 19 March it surged to $700 million. After the speech, at 10.30 last Wednesday, the tally kept creeping up, to $720 million in savings, but, mysteriously, there was a false alarm at 11.30 and the coalition had apparently decided to cut too much and put it back to $700 million. My questions to the parliamentary secretary are: (a) is this tracking going to need to increase with the new regulatory burdens that the government is imposing; and (b) when are you going to take the FoFA reforms out of your progress tracker on your own website?