It feels like a while since any substantial discussion has occurred involving policy and the business of government more broadly. Lately we’ve been stuck on constructing and deconstructing personalities and political parties. We’ve also been debating what should or should not be said as part of the usually robust, but recently vitriolic public discourse. Today is the day we must again begin focusing on policy and the business of government, looking above and beyond the easy analysis of people and personalities.
During all the hubbub a milestone went by almost undetected, with only a brief passing mention in the political media as the sexism and misogyny debate accelerated.
The Gillard Government, often wrongly accused of not getting on with the business of government, announced to the media that they had managed to have passed through the parliament over 400 bills. That much legislation passed over 2 years is certainly not, by any stretch of the imagination, not getting on with the business of government.
There was probably much back-slapping and the brief mention smacked of pride. Why wouldn’t the government be proud of that achievement? That much work making it through the parliament, a minority government occupying the benches, would not have been an easy task, made both easier and harder at different junctures since the August 2010 federal election.
But is all this work necessarily a good thing? Will all this work lead to less government and bureaucratic interference in the lives of individuals and businesses? Will it make life in Australia a smoother process? Finally, what is better, new rules and regulations and processes to follow or new or beefed up penalties for existing or newer forms of wrongdoing ?
The answer to the first question is an emphatic ‘no’. Having passed 400 bills is not something to crow about. Yes, there will be legislation now in force among the new laws which will be beneficial. But that does not mean the overall number of bills passed is a good thing, it is not. But of course, for a government struggling to be able to take credit for work they have actually done, well, you cannot really blame them.
The problem with passing over 400 bills through the parliament is that it inevitably means there will be more government, not less and that the level of bureaucratic interference in the lives of individuals and businesses will of course be higher. There will be more rules to follow, more forms to fill out in your personal life and in the life of businesses and that is never a good thing for time or money.
So life in Australia as a matter of course, with over 400 new bills passed will not be smoother in a broad sense. Again, there will be, in that immense stack of paper, some legislation that might serve to make life easier in some narrow sense. However, with the sheer amount of bills that have been made into law being so high, those act’s of parliament making life easier, will be drowned out but extra rules and regulations in other areas of life.
What should governments focus on when engaging in the business of lawmaking? Should they have a predisposition toward business and people going through more regulatory approval, having more forms to fill out? Should the focus instead be on increasing penalties for wrongdoing rather than more oversight aiming to stem bad behaviour? Or is it the case that administrations need to focus on repealing laws?
The answer is a combination of the above. What should be first and foremost when thinking of amending or even introducing legislation is a focus on the penalty side of the good and wrongdoing equation. This means that those behaving appropriately are rewarded with less time needed for bureaucratic nonsense and more to do the business, personal or otherwise that they need to do. At the same time it punishes those few that do the wrong thing.
There should be little or no focus at all on increasing rules and regulations. Extra rules, read for breaches of law, should only be introduced to deal with wrongdoing that evolves or emerges, whether that’s for new technology or new practices which develop.
More red-tape is, in just about every case, an absolute no-no. Bureaucracy must be avoided at just about any cost. Businesses and people, both time-poor, just do not need extra time and pressure to apply for or get approval for aspects of their businesses and lives. There will of course be times where it is necessary.
Ideally, there should be a predilection toward actually cutting approval processes, forms and other time-consuming activities where practical and that means actually repealing some legislation or parts thereof. Stupid offences too, and there are certainly plenty of those, should also be on the legislative chopping block.
So really, the ALP might be happy with their work and so too the cross-benchers closely linked with the government, but the question is, should we the people and should the businesses of this country be jumping for joy too?
Last night former New South Wales Premier and current NSW Opposition backbencher provided some interesting advice to the ailing federal Labor Government headed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. That advice, given on a political program on Sky News last night by the once Premier of the state of New South Wales was for the federal parliamentary party to completely revoke, or at least water down the controversial carbon tax which is set to come into force from the 1st of July this year after passing both houses of parliament.
The intervention and advice in this is as surprising as it is late, coming well after the passage of the carbon tax bills through the parliament and just months before the legislation takes effect and well after the political damage has been done.
In the first instance, the political damage inflicted by the instigation of the carbon tax has already been achieved with the broken promise after the August 2010 election which delivered a minority government that has been a source of much political drama.
Secondly, the political woes of the Gillard Government certainly started and are based in a significant way on the carbon price legislation sprung on unwary Australians thanks to the minority government situation in Canberra. However, since that time, the woes of the ALP Government have extended well beyond just the broken promise on the carbon tax package.
They now include other scandals involving the ALP including the Health Services Union scandal that has enveloped the Member for Dobell under a cloud of allegations, as well as the recent allegations against the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper, the former Liberal Party MP and Labor choice to replace Speaker Harry Jenkins.
The Prime Minister has over the weekend made moves to distance the government from Mr Thomson and Mr Slipper, with the former agreeing to being suspended from the ALP, to sit on the crossbenches until the allegations have been resolved and the latter agreeing to stand aside longer, until allegations have been dealt with fully.
But these alas are just paper fixes. They will make very little difference to the functioning of the tiny government majority, with it reduced by 1 but still with Mr Thomson admitting that he will vote with Labor on the floor of the parliament.
But back to the calls from Kristina Keneally.
Were the Gillard Government to remove the carbon tax fully they would willingly open themselves up to further attacks from the Opposition similar to attacks being made now over the legislative package,
By moving to not implement the Clean Energy Future package in full, the Prime Minister would in effect be arguing that the Opposition attacks were all correct, that the costs are too extreme and damaging to Australia.
The second option offered up by Ms Keneally would likely cause the same arguments from the Opposition. That is, by offering more compensation and making the tax less severe in other aspects, the government would again be acknowledging that there is much pain within the policy a matter of weeks away from fruition.
The Greens in this whole affair, were it to take place would be in a very difficult position. They wouldn’t support it being watered down, let alone removed altogether before it even started but at the same time, they certainly wouldn’t be getting anything remotely like the current package under the Coalition if they were to become government.
In all this, the government has come out and said that they will not be pursuing the pathway that the NSW politician Kristina Keneally has suggested would help. They are wedded to it.
Changes to the package or its non-start may save some big scalps from humiliation next election night, but alone would not prove enough to reverse the electoral fortune that continues to be told month after month.
In all this, the simple fact remains that the Gillard Government would have to perform an amazing feat on top of removing the carbon tax to get close to winning government, including reversing history which might just prove quite difficult for the ALP to achieve.
In a Year of Decision and Delivery is it the Number of Bills or the Reform Nature of the Bills That Matters Most?
As just mentioned, no less than 250 bills have been passed by this Labor Government in this sitting year of parliament. A pretty impressive number one would have to admit on the face of it, meaning that a lot of work was certainly done by the Government in the relatively few sitting weeks of parliament.
What the 250 bills passed does not tell is the nature of the bills or the complexity of the legislation that was put before the house. Indeed, the sheer number of bills passed indicates to me that the absolute vast majority were not of a major policy shift or innovation. It indicates that the vast majority were indeed lacking in controversy and by nature, mostly amendments and additions to existing legislation.
So then we must look at the amount of bills of a major nature that made it through both houses of parliament or those that have gone through the Lower House and are likely to pass the Senate early in 2012.
This year saw the passage of the National Broadband Network (NBN) related bills, the Carbon Tax legislation (all 18 related bills) and the bills for plain packaging of cigarettes through both houses. The Minerals Resource Rent Tax went through the Lower House just last week and will be off to the Senate early next year.
The sheer number and complexity and indeed controversial nature of the major bills passed means some credit should be given for getting them through the parliament at least.
The carbon tax however, is still at this stage a major political problem for the Gillard Government with the public not at all expecting a carbon tax from our current Prime Minister and getting one after a blunt promise was made that Australia would not have one. So effectively, you could cross that off the list.
The NBN is an extremely expensive proposition that will continue to cause some problems but is more popular than the carbon tax and therefore unlikely to see votes seep from the ALP. However, if cost predictions blow out or there are roll-out problems this could cause major headaches the the Labor Government.
The Minerals Resource Rent Tax looks fairly certain to pass parliament, perhaps with further amendments from the Greens in the Senate and is a popular policy with the wider electorate. The Government though will have to watch that the revenue predictions are correct and that a hole doesn’t open up when the Government begins to fund some of the tied in schemes.
The plain-packaging laws are an entirely new proposition globally with the Australian Government being the first to embark upon them. On the face of it, the idea seems to be a very sound one given the immense costs to the health budget from the deadly product. There will be a worry though about trademark infringement which may end up costing the ALP Government significant money.
So the Government you can safely say has completed a fair volume of work in 2011, which if you are of the same ideological bent as me, is not always a good thing, in other words, likely created even more regulation. There are also cautious congratulations due for plain packaging of cigarettes for fear of court challenges and a ‘watch this space’ for the cost and revenue impacts of the NBN. The Carbon Tax and mining tax, well you have heard enough anger about those already.
So clearly it is more about the depth and complexity of bills far over and above the sheer weight of numbers which are often just a ‘quick fix’ amendment or addition. By any estimation though, the Gillard Government has had a truly awful year, a large blame for that the carbon tax broken promise, but that was not the only thing.