Speech on the Omnibus Repeal Day (Autumn 2014) Bill 2014

26 March 2014

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (17:05): I rise today to speak on the package of bills that was in the big repeal day stunt last Wednesday, when we got all the fanfare, all the trumpets, the big carnival atmosphere—how happy we were to see all this regulation go. But when you go through the detail you see that there is a lot to be questioned in this approach.

If you believe the government, the Omnibus Repeal Day (Autumn 2014) Bill 2014 and related bills repeal more than 1,000 acts of parliament and make all kinds of amendments to existing legislation across a whole range of bills. And I want to make it clear from the outset that we come to these sorts of matters with an open mind, because we will always support the removal of legislation that is redundant, irrelevant or no longer applicable. It is a position we have always held. In the last Labor government we repealed more than 16,000—something like 16,794, to be precise—pieces of spent and redundant acts, regulations and legislative instruments from the statute books.

We are up for this kind of effort, and we have got some form given those 16,000 plus pieces of deregulation we did ourselves. We are always up for getting rid of useless or redundant regulation. The fact is regulation is not useless or redundant if it protects consumers, small businesses or the environment. Once you make the decision to repeal this legislation do not over-claim that it has some tremendous compliance cost-benefit for business. I want to get back into that in a moment, because there has been an extraordinary amount of exaggeration in this debate that needs to be cleared up.

In my mind the repeals legislated for in this package fall into one of three categories. Firstly there are worthy repeals, which is legislation that genuinely makes it easier for business to operate without an impact on consumers. The second category is the trivial repeals, like the legislation that corrects typographical errors or removes reference to programs that lapsed a long time ago. The third one, the one that concerns me the most, is the mean and tricky category—the attacks to the FoFA regulations; the abolitions of the Charities and Not-for-profits Commission; and the heartless attacks on cleaners wages hidden inside this package, which were brought to my attention by a colleague.

The package of bills before us today contains repeals of each of these three types. Sadly, the trivial and mean repeals far outnumber the worthy ones. Let me just briefly touch on each of those categories so that you know what I mean.

The first one is the worthy category. A sensible starting point for a discussion of the worthy stuff is to look at the deregulation agenda undertaken by the last Labor government. As I said before, we repealed over 16,000 redundant acts, regulations and instruments from the statute books. What distinguishes Labor's deregulatory agenda from the so-called bonfire of regulations undertaken by the Abbott government is that Labor's reforms were targeted towards the Seamless National Economy objective. We did not over-claim about the benefits and we did not make a big deal of it. As a result of Labor's regulation reforms, Australians are now protected by a single national consumer law instead of 20 separate acts, which ensures more consistent protection for consumers. Our Commonwealth scheme to regulate the licensing and supervision of trustee corporations commenced, replacing eight complex state and territory regimes. I could go on, but you get the point.

All in all, the Productivity Commission estimated that the completion of just the first half of the Seamless National Economy agenda lowered business costs around Australia by a total of $4 billion per year. That was really big achievement of the previous Labor government. I want to pay tribute to a guy who was in the chamber today: the great man David Bradbury, who did a lot of that work for the last Labor government. He has just been appointed to a big job, and we congratulate him. He was a very diligent reformer in the last two terms of the Labor government.

Hidden among the punctuation corrections and spent legislation repeals that make up the bulk of this omnibus bill, there are a few example of good deregulation that Labor will support. These are things like the amendments to the Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Management Act, which will improve efficiency of the framework. There are things like the certification requirements in the Aged Care Act, which can conflict with the National Construction Code and accreditation standards. That is in line with the PC recommendation to get rid of it. Labor will support these types of amendments, and they would have been high on our agenda if we had won government last September.

But these worthy repeals are largely lost amongst the second type of repeal, which is the huge sea of trivialities that make up most of this package. I thought the member for Oxley did a very good job a moment ago running through some of those trivialities. We have this bonfire of regulation, and a supposed $700 million of savings that was introduced last week.

It is worthwhile to consider the nature of some of that particular legislation. We have the 33 instances of replacing 'facsimile transmission' with 'fax'. We have got the 47 instances in this legislation where we are replacing 'e-mail' with 'email'. We have 50 instances of grammatical and spelling errors, missing comas, forgotten capital letters, the occasionally missing hyphen, and that kind of thing. That is the sort of farce that a great deal of this bill is about. Whatever—make these changes, but do not over-claim that they have some big compliance cost saving for business. It is a far cry from the biggest bonfire of regulations in our history, as the Prime Minister described it a week ago.

We have had a bit of ancient history this week with the whole knights and dames issue yesterday afternoon. We have some more ancient history here, in the sense that something like 1,120 acts of parliament from as far back as 1904 are being removed in this package. I do not know what this government's obsession with the deep past is, but there you go. All of these acts are currently spent or redundant. No need to have them, but there is no harm in them being there either, and there is certainly no compliance cost saving in them. Many of those pieces of legislation that we wave goodbye to refer to organisations that were wound up long ago. In one case it was the Colonial Courts of Admiralty, which ceased to exist in 1988. In those sorts of redundant acts the bottom line is that they have no effect on business, government or ordinary Australians. In certain cases they have not had any impact for some decades.

It is pretty difficult to understand the explanatory memorandum of the amending acts, which claims they will reduce the regulatory burden, a claim that is repeated regularly by the Prime Minister and the member for Kooyong. Given that these acts do not affect any business, any government or any ordinary Australian, I cannot understand how there will be any reduction in the regulatory burden.

To understand it a bit better I had a look at the member for Kooyong's flashy new website, cuttingredtape.gov.au. In the little red book of deregulation on there he defined regulation as:

Any rule endorsed by government where there is an expectation of compliance.

I think he fails his own test. There is no expectation for those 1,120 pieces of legislation that anyone must comply with them. So you cannot claim it as a compliance savings. They cannot be tape of any colour, red or green or otherwise, if they do not bind anyone. A big number of those do not bind anyone.

The Prime Minister claimed that the repeal package will save $700 million. If there is no compliance burden on a big chunk of these regulations, it is hard to see how they save money. Indeed, the explanatory memoranda of two of the bills claim they will have no financial impact at all.

The Prime Minister likes to describe this package as lighting the biggest bonfire of regulation in our history. I was a bit more enamoured with the way the member for Watson described it. It is like getting excited that we vacuumed the spare room that nobody walks into anyway.

All this talk of bonfires, red tape and $700 million in savings has served to obscure the noxious attacks on good regulation hiding in this package. The government's cutting red tape agenda is all predicated on the assumption that every law and every regulation is bad for business and is pointless red tape. As Ross Gittins, a very smart man, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald this week:

"… red tape is in the mind of the beholder: it's red tape if you don't like it and good governance if you do."

Or as President Obama's former chief regulatory policy adviser put it:

Smart regulations save lives and dollars.

I think there are several parts of this deregulation that could seriously affect people's lives and dollars.Of course, the most topical one in the last little while is the removal of the Future of Financial Advice legislation. That repeal is now frozen. They should dump the repeal entirely. It has been a shambles. That regulation was designed to protect people, to protect older people and their savings and people in the financial system from unscrupulous activity and from collapses—all of that. It is good that that has been frozen but that repeal now needs to be dumped because that is the sort of regulation that is good regulation.

It is just another case of vested interests getting their way on the other side. They get in the ear of the government and before you know it consumer protection goes out the window. These repeal changes were opposed by many of the relevant stakeholders representing small- and medium-sized financial institutions, including the peak financial advice body, the Financial Planning Association. I am pleased to see it is on ice, but the government should go one step further and promise not to make these harmful changes to FoFA regulation in the future. Also, according to the website, the FoFA repeal was worth about $200 million of the $700 million in savings that is claimed. So I hope we do not hear anything more about the $700 million in savings. It was probably a rubbish figure in the first place, but now it is at least $200 million less.

Another nasty thing in the package is the removal of Commonwealth regulation allowing cuts to the wages of government cleaners. This is the bit that I find really offensive about the package. Sure, have a deregulation package, have an argument about it and have the debate in this House, but do not use it as a smokescreen to harm some of the most vulnerable people in our country, the people who clean government office buildings. It is a disgraceful thing that hidden amongst thousands of pages of stuff is what can only be characterised as an attack on vulnerable people. I have a lot of low-income workers in my electorate. My colleague next to me at the table does as well, the member for Blair. It is a disgrace when the Prime Minister stands up and says, 'How great is this deregulation?' It is not great if you are a low-income cleaner in a government building. There are thousands of cleaners who will be hit by these changes, each one of them missing out on between $172 and $255 a week in an already small pay packet. It is disappointing that a cut of that nature, one that will have such a devastating impact on cleaners, has been included in this legislation.

There is also the repeal of the Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. My colleague the member for Fraser has gone through that at some length. I think it is worth noting again that charities overwhelmingly support this regulation. It is the good kind and it should not be repealed for political reasons.

The political stunt that is repeal day has not lived up to the hype and the hyperbole of the government's announcements. As I have said before, the Labor Party will always support the removal of legislation that is redundant, irrelevant or no longer applicable. But it is not any of those things when it hurts people like low-income workers. It is not any of those things when it makes charities more effective in this country and better regulated. We need to be very careful to go beyond the spin, the bluster, the smoke and mirrors, the trumpets and the fanfare of repeal day, and make sure that we are not doing anything that will hurt people in our community who are currently protected by the good kind of regulation. For this reason, the opposition have moved an amendment. It does not decline to give the bill a second reading but does allow us to highlight some of the key problems with the legislation.

The main issue with the package is that amongst the trivialities and the few instances of genuinely worthy deregulation it contains there are several really concerning and callous amendments that have been slipped in. When we discuss deregulation, it is important that we do not confuse so-called red tape with genuinely useful regulation which protects small business, protects our environment and protects ordinary Australians, and then having made those announcements do not overclaim the compliance costs for small business.