He promised a bonfire, this Savonarola of the statutes, and for once a political leader has delivered.
Tony Abbott on Wednesday put a torch to the bonfire of the bureaucratic vanities and in the process foreshadowed fundamental changes to Australia’s governance culture.
The government introduced a total of 12 bills that will repeal what Abbott described as 9500 unnecessary or counter-productive regulations and 1000 redundant acts of parliament. More than 50,000 pages will disappear from the statute books.
Very broadly, this clean-out – to be passed by the lower house next Wednesday and promoted as the first of many repeal days – falls into two categories.
Firstly, ancient laws that have long since lost any relevance will go. The earliest of these is the Defence Act of 1904, which has been amended and overtaken multiple times. This is a housekeeping job the previous Labor government started.
The second category, and this is where controversy will arise, repeals regulatory laws that aim to protect the people or the environment.
Abbott’s argument, which he presented with relish for he’s a deregulatory true believer, is that these unnecessarily cost time and money and stifle initiative.
He reeled off a string of examples that suggested rampant regulation – a job agency that needed 336 filing cabinets to hold its paper records; a cafe subject to 21 local, 29 state and 25 Commonwealth regulations.
But there will be arguments over some measures, mainly from Labor’s time in government, that face extinction.
These include some of the laws regulating financial advisers, charities and development approvals in environmentally sensitive areas.
Bill Shorten, replying to Abbott in parliament, zeroed in on these. He feared that necessary protections for consumers, workers, investors and the environment would go as ideology trumped common sense.
Certainly there was a touch of zealotry in Abbott and his parliamentary secretary Josh Frydenberg, who’s done most of the deregulatory donkey work.
They want to achieve much more than a statutory clean-up.
Frydenberg, when introducing the oddly titled Omnibus Repeal Day (Autumn 2014) Bill, put it most bluntly: “We are determined to see a cultural shift in Australia’s approach to regulation.”
So determined that bureaucrats are being turned into regulation bounty hunters, Frydenberg saying senior public servants are having their pay directly linked to their performance in reducing red and green tape.
Abbott turned his mission into a philosophy of governance.
“More regulation is not the solution to every corporate, community or personal failing,” he said.
“Sometimes we just have to accept that mistakes are inevitable and that misfortunes are unavoidable.”
And so we’re left with a vision and a fear.
Will these bonfires liberate Australians to soar ever onward and upward? Or will they leave them naked before every spiv with a get-rich-quick patter?