All governments pledge to cut red tape; few, however, actually manage to deliver on those promises. It's a pitfall the federal Coalition appears determined to avoid. On Wednesday, the government is to introduce an omnibus red-tape repeal bill sweeping away thousands of regulations applying to businesses, charities and households and sparing them "hundreds of millions of dollars'' in compliance costs.
"Repeal day'', as it has been dubbed, has been preceded by the launch of a website (www.cuttingredtape.gov.au) and booklet to encourage public servants and policymakers to "think about regulatory impact early in the process''. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has promised further bills during the government's first term to do away with laws and regulations hobbling national competitiveness, economic growth and job creation.
In a foreword to the booklet, Mr Abbott's parliamentary secretary for deregulation, Josh Frydenberg, has written that "regulation can have benefits, but business, community organisations and families pay the price of poor regulation. Regulation can't eliminate every risk, nor should it. We therefore seek better regulation, not more regulation.'' To that end, the booklet states that the No. 1 principle for policymakers should be that "regulation should not be the default option: the policy option offering the greatest net benefit should always be the recommended option''. Moreover, every policy proposal or cabinet submission introducing (or abolishing) regulation will be required to be accompanied by a regulation impact statement. The benefit of any proposed intervention will have to be weighed against the possible burden, and if this proves greater than the benefit (and no alternatives can be identified) the intervention will have to be to be reconsidered. In certain circumstances, Mr Abbott will be able to exempt an agency or department from the requirement to complete a regulation impact statement.
About 9000 regulations are due to be scrapped in the repeal bill on Wednesday, which suggests the Office of Best Practice Regulation (in the Department of Finance) and the deregulation units within other departments have been burning the midnight oil. Closer inspection, however, reveals that many of the regulations about to be scrapped are actually relics from an earlier era, and largely irrelevant: things such as war service homes regulations setting interest rates charged in the 1960s.
Determining which of Australia's rules and regulations are irritating and worthless or actually serve a useful social, economic or environmental function will not be straightforward. Mr Frydenberg has said the government's primary focus will be in getting rid of red tape that is "cutting jobs, impeding innovation and deterring investment''. But what of rules governing the protection of endangered woodland from mining development? Or regulations stipulating minimum construction and building standards? Scrapping the first might allow a coalmine to expand its operations. Abolishing minimum building standards would make construction projects quicker and cheaper. But the resulting extra jobs (and higher profits) would, arguably, be at the expense of the environment and the wider public interest.
No government would risk a regulatory free-for-all (and a possible voter backlash) by scrapping rules that business alone found bothersome, or so logic suggests. But the ability of corporations to have their views and opinions heard (and acted upon) by government is almost unmatched by other interest groups. The Coalition could allay such suspicions by pledging to cut the regulations that stifle competition in the pharmacy or taxi industries, but present indications are that these strands of red tape will not be troubled by the scissors-wielding Mr Frydenberg.
Notwithstanding the pettifogging nature of certain regulations, they must be cut with great care. To do otherwise is to risk repeating mistakes that have occurred elsewhere, particularly in the United States where industry-driven bouts of deregulation have proved financially, socially and environmentally costly.