Omnibus Repeal Day Bill - Speech to Parliament

One thing is clear: this is not much of a tea party. I know the parliamentary secretary is looking for an alternative form of engagement, but I do not recommend he looks to a role in the provision of high tea at the Windsor in that regard. What we see here is the supercharged rhetoric of the members opposite not matching the reality—the second time around. The last time we had this debate, the autumn repeal day—we talked about a bonfire. What we had was a bonfire of the vanity of the parliamentary secretary. It shows the priority of members opposite here that we are devoting today to ideology in place of substance. I think the member for Watson's contribution took us through that quite effectively. I did see the parliamentary secretary paying careful attention to the contribution of the shadow minister, as he should have done.

I was interested to follow the member for Reid's speech for a couple of reasons.

Mr Frydenberg: Very good speech!

Mr GILES: I think it was a curate's egg of a speech. The one thing that was clear was the assessment of the member for Watson. The member for Watson's crystal ball worked pretty well, because it showed that the member for Reid had no interest in talking about the matters that are before the House.

Mr Nikolic: He has run small businesses, not like you.

Mr GILES: Yes, he has run a small business. That is not the matter which is before the House. He did not devote his speech to these three bills. I will take up the interjection, because he talked about vocations that people have before coming to this place that are worthwhile. I was pleased—and I think I can say touched!—that he recognised the front-line work of lawyers as being an appropriate calling to come here. So I thank the member for Reid for that. I was a little surprised to hear that, but I thank you for that vote of confidence. He talked about the need for a mature debate. What we have seen in the government's deregulatory agenda is anything but that. It is a triumph of stunts over substance.

Mr Frydenberg: You wish you came up with that.

Mr GILES: No, no. I will turn to that briefly, Parliamentary Secretary, because what Labor is interested in in this debate are the first principles. I think everyone in this place is opposed to unnecessary regulation. That is an easy statement to make. It is a little harder to give effect to, as this debate is demonstrating. Let us think about first principles. The member for Reid also touched on the Deloitte report, which has been reported on in today's The Age newspaper. I look forward to digesting that report. I noted the comments of Chris Richardson from Deloitte as reported in The Age. He said this:

Let's be clear. Rules and regulations are vitally necessary. They cement the key foundations of our society, protecting the rule of law and a wealth of standards in everything from health to safety and the environment.

He went on to issue a challenge, a challenge that Labor members are up for, to look to the costs and to the benefits in enacting or, indeed, repealing legislation. To look at the costs and benefits—I think that is a pretty firm foundation for our engagement in this debate. It is very disappointing that the government's desire to manage the media cycle and no doubt to appease its ideological backers gets in the way of a proper consideration of the costs and benefits of particular pieces of legislation.

I was invited earlier to look to our record and I am very proud to do so. When you look at a worthwhile piece of deregulation, a worthwhile deregulatory agenda, I look at the former government's work through the COAG Reform Council and the Seamless National Economy. To touch on just one aspect of that which achieved great things in terms of consumer protection as well as productivity benefits and significant savings, I think about the step of establishing a single Australian consumer law—a single set of consumer protections—saving a billion dollars per annum. Sensible, effective, first-principles-informed deregulatory reform. Unnecessary regulation does not constitute the stunts that we are seeing today; it is a considered approach. Sometimes, as the member for Watson said, it is the routine business of government, the tidying up; on other occasions it is about doing hard work, having a mature debate. As has been said previously in this place, I believe by the member for Fraser, it is pretty clear to us that it is not a volume. This is not an exercise of piling up statutes, piling up hyphen-riven amendments; it is about the quality of the regulations, not the volume. That is pretty fundamental.

What we see here throughout this, in the desire to paint a clear ideological picture on the part of the member for Kooyong, are the ideological foundations of the debate going far beyond the practical matters that ought be considered here. Of the three bills that are before us today, I will largely confine my remarks to the Omnibus Repeal Day (Spring 2014) Bill 2014, which amends and repeals legislation in Agriculture, Communications, Environment, Immigration, Border Protection, Industry, Prime Minister and Cabinet, Social Services, Treasury and Veterans' Affairs portfolios. Of course, it is one of three bills we will be debating today as part of the much vaunted spring repeal day package. But, despite the government's rhetoric, the savings in this bill are calculated to be a very small amount. To say it again: this is not much of a tea party. I note, as the member for Watson did, that this bill does not contain some of the measures that were outlined in the ministerial statement or some that have been featured reasonably prominently in media commentary. I will turn to this later in my contribution.

I note briefly the member for Watson dealt with the other two bills in his contribution and that these bills are largely concerned with repeal of amending legislation that is no longer in effect. I note briefly the irony of the parliamentary secretary effectively adding red tape in terms of enacting legislation that is clearly entirely redundant in terms of its effect.

Back in autumn I had the opportunity to speak on the previous omnibus repeal day during the consideration in detail stage, because, once again, the government lacks the courage of its convictions in this space and gagged debate there. It was not surprising that government members declined the opportunity to contribute to that debate, because then, as now, we have a lot of sound and fury that signify absolutely nothing. The parliamentary secretary then stood in this place, stood up loudly, beat his chest, made all kinds of claims about the Abbott's governments achievements at large. In fact, I particularly remember him invoking the great spirit of Menzies. It is telling that today in a less charged atmosphere he made no such invocations. I already have my doubts about this government being remembered favourably by anyone.

We have been remembering governments past in this place in recent weeks, and I think it bears us all reflecting on the enormous contrast between the breadth of vision, engagement and achievement of the Whitlam government and what we have seen in the past 14 months—achievements of substance by a government that transformed this country for the better or the combination of incoherence and ideology that has characterised this government. This is a government that does not do much, and what it does do it does badly. For instance, the Prime Minister associates this and the previous omnibus repeal bill with savings figures in the billions of dollars—although I note the parliamentary secretary has been dialling this down. Closer scrutiny of the explanatory memorandum reveals this figure to be relatively paltry for this bill. It is pretty small beer.

As the member for Watson has noted, this bill does not contain some of the deregulatory measures outlined in the ministerial statement—for example, ending the requirement to put mudflaps on motorbikes, changing OHS requirements for government building sites and changes to the Do Not Call Register are not among measures which are contained in this bill. Perhaps this may be seen as the Abbott government's competitive agenda in a nutshell: a series of announcements with very large numbers, and what is actually being achieved? Very little of substance.

Yesterday in this place we spent some time drawing out the government's hollow and vain rhetoric as it mutated into something much more sinister with the increase of the petrol tax. We saw the government facetiously cite the alcopops regulation, which took place under the former government, to justify this cynical circumventing of the parliament. This government is, effectively, comparing youth binge drinkers with everyday motorists. There is of course a massive difference between increasing the cost of alcopops to discourage youth binge drinking and this government's breaking of yet another election promise and increasing a tax that will hit people who are just trying to get to work or run some errands.

The Abbott government's own repeal day documents reveal the impact of the petrol tax ambush will be wider, with every petrol station to be slugged an amount of around $800 a year in new compliance costs to collect this tax. According to their own information, the government will hit the nation's 6,300 petrol stations with compliance costs totalling over $5 million. There is little doubt that this increased compliance cost will be passed on to motorists when they fill up at the bowser. They will be hit twice by this new petrol tax.

Make no mistake: this increase to the tax without concurrent spending on public transport will hurt the people I represent in the electorate of Scullin. There are, of course, limited and in many cases no alternatives to driving in Scullin and in outer suburbs right across Australia. We heard yesterday about where the revenue from this increase in the petrol tax will be going in Melbourne: to the east-west tollway, a tollway which does nothing for the people in Melbourne's northern suburbs except divert much-needed money away from investment in our roads and public transport.

I turn to one element of the bill in particular. We do have concerns about the effects of the bill. As well as the tidying up there are some matters of substance which do need to be attended to. In particular I am concerned about the reduction of information required to be contained in permits for the import or, indeed, the export of hazardous waste. I make this point: unlike those opposite, we do not believe that all environmental protection legislation is bad and in need of removal. We look to the evidence. We look to the first principles. I echo the contribution of that renowned socialist Chris Richardson of Access Economics. We look to the first principles to inform the necessity or otherwise of particular regulations. And it is particularly concerning to me that the parliamentary secretary has cited with such glowing approval the attempted repeal by the so-called Minister for the Environment of important environmental legislation in the EPBC Act. This reinforces the concerns I have that require further scrutiny. I note the aspect of the bill that I have touched upon—the proposed changes to hazardous waste—only saves $130,000. In this context I definitely think this is something which deserves much greater scrutiny before we potentially subject our environment to what could be devastating damage.

As the member for Watson drew out quite effectively, the activity of repealing spent and redundant acts and legislative instruments is part of the normal operation of government. It is what every government does. It is what every government should do. It is telling that the achievements of this government are so thin they feel the need to shout this from the rooftops and dress it up in such rich ideological baggage. The Abbott government in putting before us these bills and the show that goes with them seem to be demanding applause for simply walking and chewing gum at the same time. Perhaps when we look at the record writ large that is a reasonable request. I repeat the words of the member for Watson: in government, without fanfare, without a song and dance, without wasting the parliament's time, Labor repealed 16,794 acts and instruments. Labor did not need a special day or days to do it; we got on with the job of government.

Really, underpinning this is a big debate about the role of government, and I do thank the member for Reid for touching upon that and for touching upon serious considerations about the future of Federation. But this is not a mature debate or how we should have a mature debate. What is really interesting about this bill and the related legislation—contrary to everything the member for Reid said—is that it reveals how ideologically driven the government is on the one hand and how narrow the scope of its ambitions are on the other.

This is a government that is obsessed with the notion that all government is bad and that a survival-of-the-fittest, dog-eat-dog world is the best. We have a contrary view. The weak should be protected from the strong. People need the law to be on their side when odds are stacked against them. And, while there is a real debate to be had about deregulation, it is through this first-principles frame that Labor will approach it, looking at what is necessary and not simply asserting it. This is a debate that has been entirely filled with assertion from members opposite. It is underpinned by a fundamental irony. In all this talk about reducing red tape, this package of bills, like the omnibus bills in the autumn, seem ultimately to be about making busywork to keep the member for Kooyong, the parliamentary secretary, busy.

The Australian people are entitled to something that is more than glib, disingenuous assurances that this bill does no harm. More scrutiny is necessary in relation to certain aspects of it, and that is why we have moved to have this bill subject to a Senate inquiry—a good and proper process. Labor continues to be committed to an organised and ongoing effort to minimise, simplify and create cost-effective regulation informed by first principles.

I started this contribution by noting that this does not constitute much of a tea party. This bill is all about ideology, celebrating a particular view of the world without giving that view particular expression, and that is the sad thing on the part of the parliamentary secretary. This is ultimately government members looking in the mirror and liking what they see, and that is fair enough, but the parliament's time would be much better spent debating our real priorities—the future of Medicare, the higher education reforms—not a narrow exercise in ideology dressed up as something that it is not.


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