It began with a battle cry and has apparently ended with scarcely a whimper.
Before the 2013 election, then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott promised to cut the cost of Commonwealth red tape by at least $1 billion a year and his incoming government launched this project with a blazing reformist zeal that signalled that they were deadly serious. There were even Red Tape Repeal Days – in fact, four of them in the Autumns and Springs of 2014 and 2015. Naturally, they were all-singing, all-dancing events as our breathless nation was told of huge strides in getting rid of enterprise and innovation strangling red tape.
We were told that billions of dollars were being saved by business as the goverment slashed and burned hundreds of unnecessary, petty and illogical laws and regulations. It was all very gung-ho. It was the dawn of a bright new tomorrow.
Then the Liberal Party decided that it didn't need Abbott as its leader and Prime Minister. One of the key conspirators in that coup was Dr Peter Hendy, the MP for Eden-Monaro. With his chum Malcolm Turnbull in the chair, Hendy was rewarded with the exciting job of Assistant Minister for Productivity and took on the red tape reduction responsibility. In the 2016 election the good people of Eden-Monaro decided that they didn't want Dr Hendy as their MP and the project seemed to lapse or, perhaps, just got lost in the thickets of bureaucracy.
In fact, Hendy had already announced in February 2016 while Assistant Minister that the twice-yearly red tape repeal days would be scrapped and replaced with Annual Reports. He tabled the first Annual Report in Parliament in March, 2016.
There was even an exciting web site called "Cutting Red Tape" which was described as "The Australian Government's online resource for regulation reform". Its last announcement was about the tabling of that 2015 Annual Report and there hasn't been a single announcement since. Now with Parliament closed for the year, the 2016 Annual Report – if there is one – has not been tabled. Presumably, only God knows if there will be a 2017 Annual Report.
For a government committed to openness, transparency and the ruthless reduction in red tape, this web site is a sad and forlorn shadow of its former self.
I went to the "Resources" section and clicked on "Track our Progress" to be abruptly told, "You are not authorised to access this page". I went to the link to the "Regulatory Reform Division of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and got the result, "Page not found". It was all very depressing.
According to Dr Hendy in 2016 when he launched the first 2015 Annual Report it was the Regulatory Reform Division of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet that was doing all of the heavy lifting. So off I went to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
It appeared to be terribly exciting. I was encouraged when I read the banner headline, "Australia's approach to regulatory reform" but too quickly my enthusiasm was cruelly dashed. The "Latest news" was posted on June 14, 2016 and that announced the "8th OECD conference measuring regulatory reform". The "key achievements" of this project abruptly end in December, 2015. It is claimed that the annual cost of complying with Commonwealth regulation has been cut by $4.8 billion, exceeding the promised target of $3 billion over three years.
I did read that four dates had been set for Regulation training for public servants in 2017 – the last being November 29 – but if anything was achieved it has not been mentioned.
In an article in The Australian on 25 February, 2017, top-flight Sydney lawyer Danny Gilbert AM estimated that red tape at all levels of government cost $65 billion a year – or $7,300 per family.
He cited as an example one large employer's environmental assessment process that took more than two years, involved more than 4,000 meetings and resulting in a 12,000 page report When approved, the project faced more than 1,500 Commonwealth and State conditions with a further 8,000 sub-conditions attached to them. The process cost the company more than $25 million.
Another quite absurd example, the innovative Australian company Cochlear, the manufacturer and exporter of hearing implant devices had to wait two years to have its device pass safety checks despite having already achieved clearance by European regulators. Cochlear, formed with Commonwealth Government finance in 1981 to commercialise their product holds two-thirds of the world's hearing implant market and more than 250,000 people around the world are fitted with them.
Then there are the plainly stupid regulations – in WA, a hardware store can sell outdoor lights before 11am but no indoor lights, while petrol stations can sell cigarettes before 8am on Mondays but not nicotine patches. Pantyhose can be sold after 9pm on Thursdays but not underpants and a country pub can sell takeaway liquor on Sundays but a liquor store across the road cannot.
Mr Gilbert wrote, "A new spotlight needs to be shone on regulators themselves. The Office of Best Practice Regulation – the regulator for good regulation, which sits in the Prime Minister's Department – needs the power to hold proponents of additional regulation to account. Taxpayers deserve to know that they are getting value for money."
That just might not happen.
Minister James Hacker from Yes Minister once observed, "The three articles of Civil Service faith: it takes longer to do things quickly, it's more expensive to do things cheaply and it's more democratic to do them in secret."