DELIVERED TO THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
I welcome the opportunity to speak on these bills, and I welcome the member for Ryan’s new-found interest in statute stocktake and other legislation. I say that because, as I go back through the 43rd parliament and I look at legislation such as the Statute Stocktake Bill (No. 1) 2011, the Statute Law Revision Bill 2012, the Legislative Instruments Amendment (Sunsetting) Bill 2011 and the Statute Law Revision Bill 2012, she was not here to be seen! Not a word! But I am always delighted when members take a new-found interest in what I call the very sound practice of eliminating regulation that has become outdated or unnecessary by amending and/or repealing certain legislation. What ground-breaking words—since the member for Wentworth quoted himself, I will quote myself.
Even more importantly, I think, as part of these debates over the 43rd parliament when we had virtually no-one on the other side participating on the importance of eliminating spent or out-of-date legislation and thousands and thousands of pages were removed from the statute books, there was not a whimper, or barely a whimper. I thought an interesting whimper came in the form of the now trade minister who, in the debate on the Statute Stocktake Bill (No. 1) 2011 on 23 June that year, did make some comments:
That is Labor, when we were in government—
is drawing an extremely long bow in its promotion of this bill as part of its commitment to reducing red tape, at least within the government’s own administration.
It must be Irony Week—because the longest bow being drawn here is by this government claiming that this bill is somehow going to result in the elimination of red tape, somehow going to result in cost savings of such magnitude that are beyond imagination. So, as I said, I am very happy to welcome new-found interest from members on that side of the House—who all of a sudden think that repealing redundant legislation from the 1960s and 1970s is what everyone in the community has apparently been crying out for. I am very happy to welcome that.
Turning to some of the substantive aspects of this legislation, I did think it was a bit rich to get a lecture from the Minister for Communications and his parliamentary secretary. It is funny how, in going through his regulatory principles a bit earlier, the parliamentary secretary never addressed these when he was an adviser to the Howard government during this period. He talked about convergence. The convergence debate in Australia came and went, and Australia did absolutely nothing. He did not mention other important factors that go towards explaining the way in which the communications sector is regulated, such as vertical integration and the importance of regulating to deal with that. He did not mention facilities-based competition in the ladder of investment, the notion that service retail enables new entrants into the market, and from there we can have facilities-based competition, and how we saw the failure of facilities-based competition under the Howard regime in Australia—resulting in no competition in broadband, no accessibility. He never included mention of some of his beauties when he was an adviser to the Howard government. But I will do that for him. His piece de resistance—this is my favourite—was actually the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999.
If you want to talk about regulating just for the sake of having red tape, people often ask me: ‘Member for Greenway, in the Telecommunications Act there is an enormous gap between part 8 and part 13, and there are a couple of gaps in between that have not been filled over the years. Why is that?’ The answer I give them is: ‘Well, you see, in November 1998 when the Howard government was flogging off Telstra and needed to pull the wool over the National Party’s eyes so they could allow the sale to go through, the Howard government took a couple of sections from the Telecommunications Act and put them into a new act and gave it a new name.’ Such inventiveness should be rewarded, and I am happy to mention that today and to pay tribute to the parliamentary secretary for doing this. It is indeed all a show, and you do not have to take it from me. You can take it from then Minister Minchin, who said, ‘The government is bringing together in this bill the consumer and service safeguards so that Australians can readily know what protections are available to them.’ That is fine, but all this time they have been going on about how there has been unnecessary regulation. We had a whole act invented just so they could get through the sale of Telstra and assuage the Nationals on this point.
But there is another good point here, because we are talking in some aspects about repealing regulation related to the universal service obligations. There are some changes here. There are some savings here. They are not to be sneezed at. And they, of course, bring on the point of USO contestability—contestability and the universal service obligation. Again, these were reforms dreamt up under the Howard government, and what a success they were! One of the biggest flops ever seen! Let us see what the International Telecommunications Union ICT tool kit says about Australia and contestable USO provision:
The goal of the Australian Universal Service Obligation Fund was to encourage competition in under-served areas by licensing other operators to become universal service providers …
The pilot areas were divided into a total of 213 US—
areas that encompassed 52 local government areas.
So a lot of work, a lot of regulation, a lot of legislative instruments went into that. The conclusion was:
… in 2005 the Ministry for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts declared that Telstra was the only USP and that there was no competition in the provision of US—
that is, universal service.
The government overregulated when they were in government before. They got it wrong. They repeal it, and then they want a pat on the back. There is so much more that they could have done here, and I will help them out, because some of the other speakers said there was more fun to come. I will help them out
Datacasting was a fantastic notion dreamt up by former Senator Alston. He declared, basically, that a heap of spectrum could not be used for a commercial interest, so who would like to bid for it? So they had all these auction rules created, all these legislative instruments around it and all these people working on it, and, amazingly, no-one wanted to bid for this spectrum. I was very interested to see what is happening with datacasting today. Why is it still in various pieces of legislation—all the auction rules and all the licensing processes? So I went to the Department of Communications website and looked up datacasting. It says at the bottom:
Further information on datacasting can be found on the ACMA’s datacasting page
So I went to that datacasting page:
The page you are looking for could not be found.
It is so relevant that the regulator does not even have it updated on its own website!
I will go to a couple of other examples. Early last year, in February, I presented a speech to the Australian Broadcasting Summit talking about a lot of the challenges facing regulation. I mentioned the issue of regional radio and made these comments:
When the Howard Government amended the cross media ownership laws in 2006 a particular concern was the impact on local content on regional radio.
This is a very important point. When I was making these comments, people in the audience were nodding their heads. I continued:
As a consequence, they—
the Howard government—
introduced specific local content and local presence regulatory requirements for those licencees.
This resulted in quite onerous regulatory compliance obligations on those licencees.
As a lawyer at Gilbert and Tobin, one of my colleagues had the task of spending many hours, even days, on fulfilling this compliance task for one licencee.
Thankfully this Government—
the Labor government—
in 2011 … revised those rules to reduce that burden, including in some cases exemptions.
… the point I wish to make is the need for policy makers to understand the full impact of regulations.
So it is very clear to see that, while those opposite bemoan the amount of regulation in some areas, they in fact have been the prime culprits, and it is time to reduce those regulatory burdens where Labor in government did the same.
I would point out some of the big savings in the communications space in this bill. We are talking a total of about $30.445 million, not to be sneezed at, and $22.14 million of that is actually attributable to bills enacted or at least drafted under Labor. Labor’s bills that came to this parliament and that lapsed as a result of the election then came back in virtually the same form. They are actually Labor reforms. They include reforms relating to removing requirements for multiple permits for submarine cables and the prepaid-mobile identity requirements reforms, where paper based requests were done away with. Of course, it took time to do this because you need to consult with law enforcement agencies. These are the kinds of devices that are used for things like drug dealing and other heinous offences. This resulted in Labor savings of $22.14 million.
I will have a look at the remainder of the reforms in the communications space here. There is $6.58 million to do with consumer information under the SFOA regime. This was only possible because the Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code was brought about under part 6 of the Telecommunications Act under Labor in government. We let part 6 of the Telco Act operate effectively. While the minister may talk about getting all the CEOs together, all those blokes in suits, Labor actually got consumer groups as well as the industry into the room to make this happen. So this is only able to come about because we have part 6 of the Telecommunications Act working as it should because Labor facilitated it.
I want to end my comments on a couple of points related to what is supposed to be the genesis for this day of cutting red tape. I was very interested. I have had a look at The Australian Government Guide to Regulation, which is on the Cutting Red Tape website. It basically says that everyone needs to read this, ‘from the most junior member of the policy team to the departmental secretary’. As I was reading through, I thought: ‘This actually sounds very familiar. I think I have read this kind of stuff before.’ And, sure enough, as I go through existing best practice guides about regulation, including those of the Australian National Audit Office, it sets in place its principles for regulation, including its best practice checklists, including a best practice checklist on resourcing issues, which goes directly to issues of cost. Then I go to the Legislative Instruments Handbook, for which there is an exposure draft that was put out in January 2014. It includes requirements such as, in chapter 4, the requirement for rule makers to ‘assess the regulatory impact of a proposal under the Best Practice Regulation Handbook’ 2013.
I wanted to see what this Best Practice Regulation Handbook 2013 said, so I went to the Office of Best Practice Regulation website to find this 2013 document. When you click on it, it now just goes to the Cutting Red Tape website.
There is not even a mention of the Best Practice Regulation Handbook, when you go to this site, to say it has been replaced. This is all simply redoing a number of documents that already existed to guide best practice regulation. I know a bit about best-practice regulation, because, in my former life, I was responsible for formulating best-practice regulation not only for government departments and agencies in Australia but also overseas and for regulators themselves. So I can tell when something is simply being held up as a new document. These are simply best-regulation principles. For the parliamentary secretary, and anyone else, to claim that this is somehow a new and inventive model that they have developed is absolutely wrong. I encourage everyone to go and try to find the 2013 edition of the Best Practice Regulation Handbook, because I think you will find that those provisions have been duplicated in this document that they claim is something new, when in fact it is not.