Every new Queensland government for the past 30 years – from Wayne Goss’s to Annastacia Palaszczuk’s – has made cutting red tape a big deal.
Treasurer Cameron Dick is keeping up the tradition. His brand-new Office of Productivity and Red Tape Reduction is one of the signature economic policy initiatives of the third-term Palaszczuk administration.
Good on him for giving it a shot but as a research paper from the Queensland Productivity Commission (QPC), titled “Improving Regulation” and released last week, makes clear he’s signing up for a Sisyphean task.
“Over the last decade, governments in Queensland and elsewhere have explored ways to improve how regulation is made, reviewed and administered,” the report says.
“Despite some successes, there remain significant opportunities to pursue regulatory reform and modernise the regulatory reform,” it says with classic bureaucratic understatement.
The QPC estimates it’s costing Queensland businesses up to $7 billion a year to comply with state regulation.
It also guesses – and it can only be guesses because no one really keeps track of these things – the state could be spending up to $3.1 billion annually to administer all that regulation.
Where does it all come from, this red tape that’s costing everyone so much money?
Here’s a case study.
One of the Goss Government’s early decisions when it came to office in late 1989 was to establish the Business Regulation Review Unit.
As an early exercise, it was given the job of reviewing all the red tape needed to set up and run a typical corner store.
It identified 18 separate licences, approvals and permits, a number the government eventually managed to reduce to 16 by passing laws removing the need for special licences to sell milk and fish.
A small victory you might say but I’ve just been on the website of the Australian Business Licence Information Service to see what’s required to set up a convenience store these days.
The answer? Thirty-one licences, permits and other bits of relevant information that a store owner is supposed to be aware of, such as consumer product and information standards, country of origin labelling standards and fair work information statements.
That’s double the number of 30 years ago.
You can see the logic and good intention behind most if not all of these requirements.
But with each of these good intentions comes more red tape and more responsibilities for shop owners.
How could you object, for instance, to the “National Employment Standards”, which are the “10 minimum standards of employment entitlements for employees covered by the national workplace relations system”.
Even if you did object, you’d still need to pay attention because “a contravention of the NES may result in penalties in excess of $13,000 (for an individual) or $66,000 (for a company).”
And who could find fault with strict rules around selling cigarettes?
The good news is you don’t actually need a licence to sell tobacco but you do need to be aware of all of your obligations as a seller of cigarettes, or run the risk of big fines.
You need, for instance, to make sure your staff members have filled in their “employee information and training acknowledgement” form, which acknowledges they’ve been told not to sell tobacco to minors.
You also need to make sure you don’t have the wrong sort of signage.
The good news though is the government will give you the permitted sign for free – A5-sized and white with the words, “Smoking products sold here” in black text in Arial or Times New Roman with a maximum size of 17mm.
“Nothing else may be on the sign,” you are warned. Penalties apply if you get it wrong.
And on it goes, government steadily cranking out new rules and regulations for all sorts of presumably noble purposes – from removing the temptation of cigarettes from youngsters to making sure workers aren’t exploited – all of it leaving more red tape in its wake.
That’s one of the first big challenges for any anti-red tape crusader – how to stem the flow, let alone deal with what’s already been created.
The QPC’s Improving Regulation report shows the Palaszczuk Government passed 217 new acts and 1,249 pieces of subordinate legislation between 2016 and 2020.
During the same period, it repealed only 34 acts and 228 pieces of subordinate legislation.
The other big challenge for red tape reductionists is how to make sure that what’s already on the books is actually necessary.
The QPC says Queensland currently has 565 acts and 452 subordinate instruments (regulations, codes of practice and the like) in force.
“Of these acts, 125 have not been amended in the last 10 years and 66 have not been amended in over 20 years,” the commission says.
It also acknowledges there is no information on when acts were last reviewed rather than just amended.
Subordinate instruments are supposed to be reviewed more regularly because they automatically expire after 10 years.
“There are, however, several regulations that have been exempted from expiry on multiple occasions (upwards of 10 years) on the grounds that they are under ‘review’,” the commission says.
In short, once a new rule or regulation gets on the books – red tape and all – it’s very hard to get it off again.
But Treasurer Dick’s new Office of Productivity and Red Tape Reduction is going to give it a shot.
The new agency, Dick said in his latest Budget speech in December, “will enable us to fast-track opportunities for regulatory reform that can accelerate our path away from COVID-19”.
Dick recently told InQueensland colleague Sean Parnell he wanted to “unleash” the private sector to drive the state’s economic recovery.
“That includes by ensuring we better regulate – better regulation itself, and better regulating by government,” Dick said.
Fine aspirations of course but the fact is that cutting red tape had already been a priority of the first two Palaszczuk administrations.
A Red Tape Reduction Advisory Council was one of Premier Palaszczuk’s first promises to business when she addressed around 60 industry leaders at Parliament House just one day after taking office in February 2015.
Judging from the QPC’s report, success has been limited.
But every Treasurer needs a big idea or two and Dick appears to have settled on productivity improvement and red tape reduction as his.
We can only hope he wins the fight – against all the odds.
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