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Abbott's ill-judged crusade against red tape


Red Tape

The Prime Minister has been forced to announce a proposal to toughen food labelling laws after the recent outbreak of Hepatitis A was linked to ‘Nannas’ imported berries.

The move goes against the Government’s resolve to remove red tape that represents ‘unnecessary’ compliance costs for business. As he said after news broke of the berry contamination, ‘The last thing I want to do is put a whole lot of additional requirements on business’.

The good of the consumer was a secondary justification for his initial opposition to better labelling. He said it would ‘raise unreasonably prices to consumers’ and that ‘businesses have an obligation to … ensure that the product they sell is safe’.

The government set the right tone in its early days when it established the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program of the previous government. Labor’s ‘pink batts’ scheme had seen unscrupulous small business interests exploit the lack of red tape, resulting in the deaths of casual employees and dangerous installations that made ordinary people vulnerable to house fires.

The Royal Commission findings, which the government supported, pointed to the need for more regulation. In supporting its findings, the Prime Minister did not exactly say that more red tape was needed, but the message was that Labor's lack of red tape was the culprit. 

The Royal Commission did not lead to an obvious appreciation of the need for regulation. Instead, the government – intent on establishing its ‘business friendly’ credentials – proceeded to dismantle regulation and consumer protection in a many areas. For example, it took down the government’s healthy food rating website. Later it dismantled financial advice protections to the extent that the Senate allowed.

The government derided red tape and presented regulation as the enemy, without making a clear distinction between regulations that are redundant and those that are needed to protect the consumer. In what amounts to a crusade, it established a website – cuttingredtape.gov.au – and instituted Repeal Days in the Autumn and Spring of 2014. It proudly announced: ’The Australian Government has a plan to cut $1 billion in red tape every year’. Those ‘caught up in red tape’ were invited to make submissions.

Red tape is the enemy of business that is either unscrupulous or only interested in short-term profit. It can be the friend of business that thinks for the long term and values certainty over ad hoc decision making.

It is undeniably the friend of the consumer, even though regulation requires us to pay a few cents more for the protection it provides. In the words of Agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce, ‘you are buying an insurance premium against getting sick’.

Last week the Prime Minister said businesses should take more responsibility for food safety, and rightly suggested that they would not stay in business for long if they didn’t. That is a market truism. However it does not account for businesses that don’t plan to be around for very long but instead aim to make a ‘quick buck’ from unwary consumers before moving on. Most importantly, it is unlikely to do much for those who contracted Hepatitis A after consuming Nanna's frozen berries. 

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Red tape image by Shutterstock.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Tony Abbott, regulation, red tape, compliance, pink batts, nannas, frozen berries



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Existing comments

Has the Australian Government issued a FORMAL DEFINITION of RED TAPE for all to see and understand.

James Gunn | 01 March 2015  

I think that 'it's time' that Eureka Street realised that the core of support for Tony Abbott, as an ethical, honourable, just man is Christian, and yes majority CATHOLIC. Why torment him with nit-picking?

Claude Rigney | 02 March 2015  

I wondered if the current government was opposed to Red Tape because it reminded them of Reds under the Bed and was therefore bad per se? But on closer research I found that Charles Dickens & Thomas Carlyle are said to have popularised the expression to describe that rigid adherence to Rules & Regulations, carried to excess by lawyers and governments (politicians and bureaucrats), who tied their papers together with red tape. Apparently the British government got rid of Red Tape by starting to use White Tape as an economy measure. It got rid of the expense of dyeing. Only the Vatican continues to use Red Tape which might explain why Cardinal Pell is not making quicker progress at finding out what really is the situation with Vatican finances. 'Red Tape' is a cliched expression used by laissez faire politicians to describe any form of compliance regulation that might inhibit gung ho entrepreneurs from have a free go at making a quick buck, even to the extent that some of their customers might get very sick - the sort of collateral damage one might expect in the rat race that characterises more and more aspects of Australian commerce.

Uncle Pat | 02 March 2015  

I don't think the Government has ever said it is against necessary regulation - it is rather the superfluous or duplicative. That will unnecessarily cost the consumer more, and make it harder for business. This article is nitpicking, as Claude says.

Bill Frilay | 02 March 2015  

Claude--I agree

Brian | 02 March 2015  

In reply to Claude Rigney: Regulation that protects the consumer is justified not only on moral grounds but also on economic grounds in that the community pays for failures of the care-less. Regulation that is not justified, such as the two electrical inspections involved in solar panel installation - one to check that the installation was OK and one by the distributor to check that the panels turned off when the power was disconnected and to "reprogram" the meter - should be eliminated. The two inspections could have been done by one person. Regulations that require an experienced teacher in Victoria to undertake re-study two subjects in NSW in order to register in that state is red tape.

Peter Horan | 02 March 2015  

IS Mr. Abbott being forced to reimpose previous regulations on food imports? It seems hard to castigate him if the former regulations are still in place. I'm sure there are many regulations which still deserve removal without any negative impact except perhaps on the number of people employed in the Public Service.

Name | 02 March 2015  

I daresay there are many worthy quests on which Crusader Abbott could embark.

David Arthur | 06 March 2015  

Red tape is strangling business. Registering for customs online access - at Symantec they want a certified copy of incorporation certificate - asic.gov.au gets an original!!

Lilstrega | 16 March 2015  

Unfortunately politics is riddled with business and "mates in business". Thus one favours the views of their perspective. Thus have mates of your own in the businesses that share your perspective and claim this on tax.

John Talbot | 17 April 2015  

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