Broadband Projects An Embarrassing, Expensive Failure

Perhaps John Howard is right – State Governments are stupid. When NSW Premier Morris Iemma announced its ambitious program to blanket Sydney with WiFi coverage, providing it for free to consumers, he explicitly referred to a San Franciscan project as one to emulate.

But it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Californian project is imploding. US internet provider EarthLink may pull out of San Francisco’s municipal WiFi project. Australian governments should take note – local politicians are not always the best investors in communications technology.

After the ACCC had torpedoed Telstra’s proposal to build a Fibre-to-the-node network late last year — but before the major federal parties had announced their intentions to simply pay for the high-speed networks themselves — State governments one by one proposed their own solutions to the broadband controversy.

Leading the charge, Peter Beattie proposed that a private firm finance, build and operate a fibre-to-the-home network in Brisbane, but this was little more than a wishful press release.

Other states drew on overseas broadband proposals. Western Australia’s $1 billion fibre proposal was modelled on Alberta’s SuperNet. By all accounts, the Canadian network has been a relative success, but both SuperNet and the WA plan focus on building network backbone to essential services rather than piping internet direct to consumers.

Certainly, there are a wide range of international comparisons to call upon. Particularly in the United States, local governments are taking it upon themselves to get into the broadband business, with or without private support. But the experience has been rocky.

Local WiFi projects are often underutilised, underperforming, and expensive. Local councils may assume that free broadband would be popular, but one citywide project in Orlando, Florida was shut down in 2005 when the city realised that only 27 people were using the service per day.

Uptake rates have been more positive in other cities, but are in the range of one to two percent of the population, comparing poorly with the forecasted demand of between 15 and 30 percent.

The most high-profile network – and one which Iemma praised when announcing the Sydney plan – has also been the biggest debacle. San Francisco’s joint venture with EarthLink and Google is no closer to deployment than when it was announced in 2005. Indeed, the project’s failure was abundantly clear at the time when the NSW government was examining it.

The Google-EarthLink plan has been derailed by political theatre and contractual disputes. And even if EarthLink doesn’t pull out, the network speeds offered will be a paltry 300kbps – a speed which has been widely derided in Australia as ‘fraudband’. Contrast this with the 60 mbps nationwide fibre-to-the-home network that Verizon is investing in at a cost of US$18 billion.

It is tempting for politicians to offer things to their constituents for free, especially something as popular as broadband. But local government broadband projects are proving to be an embarrassing, expensive failure.

The Value Of Secrets To Pollies And Journos

In 1870, the editor of the Chicago Times got his job description down nicely: “It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news, and raise hell.”

So it is hard to sympathise with Peter Costello’s claims that his now famous dinner was off the record. After all, the demand for salacious gossip about senior politicians is almost infinite. And for journalists, the market for information is highly competitive.

When these combine, it must be tough for journalists to resist disclosing juicy political confessions. The potential personal benefit for the reporter and commercial benefit for their employer is enormous. And nobody wants to be the one who sat on a big story while their competitor makes their reputations disclosing it.

Such briefings with seemingly sympathetic journalists are common enough when tilling the ground for political change. By going public with the details of the dinner, some may claim that damage has been done to the sacred reporter-politician relationship. And the journalists involved will struggle to get invited to dinner with the next aspirational treasurer.

However, whatever country club mentality remains in the relationship between these two opposed professions is bound to erode away over the course of the next few years.

The news media has been highly competitive since the invention of the daily newspaper nearly three hundred years ago. But the even greater competition brought about from recent technological change has exponentially increased the value of a scoop.

Outlets like Crikey explicitly market themselves as purveyors of inside gossip and rumours – when Crikey readers are offered “the inside track”, it is in contrast to what is seen as an overly conservative traditional press corp.

In the United States, bloggers who self-identify as online journalists are routinely granted the legitimacy of press passes and interviews. With none of the institutional and reputational support that comes with a masthead, these writers can only sell themselves on original content. For this reason, some US bloggers are becoming formidably competitive at sourcing news, often shining their dead-tree counterparts.

If on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, then in the real world, nobody knows you’re on the internet. In the era of widespread social-networking, people don’t even need a blog to break news. We shouldn’t be surprised if in the coming years some stories are broken in the status updates of Facebook profiles.

Politicians can hardly expect secrets to be kept when there is so much value from disclosure.

Laws Against Concentrated Media Ownership Hurt, Rather Than Help

The Australian reports today that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has begun its inquiry into Fairfax’s acquisition of Southern Cross Broadcasting’s TV and radio assets.

The ACCC has been given a greater role in the regulatory adjudication of media mergers after Helen Coonan’s partial deregulation of ownership law in September last year.

For consumers, these reforms should have been welcome. Laws against concentrated media ownership hurt, rather than help, the cause of media diversity.

Media ownership laws rely on a crude, and possibly erroneous, model of the relationship between ownership and content diversity. Their premise is simple: concentration of ownership is a proxy for concentration of content.

But a growing body of empirical evidence suggests that this link is not as well established as the critics of media deregulation might assume.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, concentration of ownership can increase media diversity. A reduction of the number of owners in a newspaper market often leads to an increase in product differentiation. Firms in these situations find it is more profitable to lure consumers with new products than by trying to ape established ones.

Another classic example here is subscription television, where a single firm offers consumers dozens of highly diverse channels. But the diversity available on pay TV indicates a source of the dull homogeneity of much of Australia’s television – the protectionist management of the broadcasting spectrum. If we are serious about encouraging media diversity we should be at the very least liberalising the number of television licences.

Across the media sector, firms are searching for new business models. The announcement that PBL Media would be taken over by a private equity firm indicated just how aware ‘old media’ firms are of their new competition and their audience’s changing media consumption patterns.

In this context, media concentration and consolidation might more usefully be seen as a ‘circle the wagons’ strategy by firms in traditional markets. As audiences fragment, many firms feel that they have to expand their empires just to keep up.

This may not end up being a successful strategy. In the United States, a wave of consolidations a few years ago has been followed by widespread break-ups and divestitures.

But in such a competitive environment, these firms need to be allowed to experiment with business structures as much as possible. Applying economy-wide rather than sector-specific competition law to the industry is a step in the right direction.

Che Chic: You’ve Ignored The Horrors, Now Buy The T-Shirt

Forty years since his death, Che Guevara is selling strong. But his continuing iconic status tells us less about Guevara and more about the irreverence and unpredictability of culture in a capitalist society.

There is hardly a more recognisable symbol of revolutionary chic. Guevara’s image is plastered on T-shirts, backpacks and posters. One online store sells clocks with his iconic portrait to emphasise just how anti-establishment wall-mountable clocks can be.

Che Guevara is the Ralph Lauren polo shirt of the anti-capitalist set. But Guevara doesn’t really represent what the university students who proudly display his image think he does. Guevara was a Marxist guerilla who made a specialty of executing his opponents and prisoners without trial. He pioneered techniques of psychological torture. And he directed “suicide squads” that were sent into battles with no hope of victory.

He also founded Cuba’s concentration camp system, extolled the virtues of class hatred, and persecuted homosexuals.

Even when he wasn’t waging war against civilians, he was still a disaster. After the Cuban revolution, Guevara took a government position as Cuba’s central economic planner, and promptly drove the economy into the ground. Michael Moore and Oliver Stone may flatter the achievements of Fidel Castro, but much of the blame for the poverty of Cuban socialism must be laid at Guevara’s feet.

For this reason, it would be easy to chalk up the modern admiration of Guevara to dormant totalitarian fantasies in the left. But there is already too much self-righteous indignation in politics. Just because someone has a poster of Guevara on their wall, doesn’t immediately imply that they want to send homosexuals to a prison camp and execute those who are not doctrinaire Marxists.

For most people, Guevara is simply a vague symbol of rebelliousness. The modern cult of Guevara loves the rebel, but ignores his cause.

Nevertheless, even that anti-establishment credibility is being seriously devalued. Advertising executives appropriate his image to make their brands seem edgy.

It’s hard to imagine anyone more embedded in the establishment than Prince Harry, yet the third in line to the English throne has paraded around in a Che Guevara T-shirt.

The iconic Guevara has been devalued nearly to the point of meaninglessness. What remains is little more than a striking piece of graphic design with strong colours.

This is hardly surprising. Popular culture has a wonderful habit of appropriating meaningful symbols, processing them into accessible packages, making jokes about them and finally selling them for a profit. The modern cultural economy has a voracious appetite for icons to ridicule and market.

Popular culture turns dictatorship and violence into irony and kitsch.

And Guevara’s portrait is not the only morally ambiguous icon being appropriated for popular consumption.

The popularity of Soviet propaganda posters is undiminished by an awareness of the brutal oppression of Soviet communism. Same too for Chinese communism — posters of Chairman Mao are widely available even as the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution is revealed to the West.

Even Nazism can be the brunt of cultural ridicule. In 1940, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator mocked the effete airs of Adolf Hitler, without diminishing Chaplin’s serious contempt for the Third Reich. Earlier this year, the German comedy Mein Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler was a box-office hit.

But Nazi kitsch has not been so comfortably embraced by popular culture — perhaps a testament to our continued inability to fully comprehend the horror of the Holocaust.

Similarly, not every use of the Guevara icon is ironic or in jest. Those who display it in deliberate solidarity with the Argentinian guerilla fighter are either ignorant or morally bankrupt. Guevara was nowhere near the quasi-Jesus figure portrayed in the 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries.

For many of the people who suffered from his attempts at Marxist revolution, a Guevara T-shirt is the moral equivalent of a Stalin T-shirt.

But capitalist culture doesn’t obey moral judgements. Ironically, Che Guevara’s longevity as a cultural symbol has been thanks to the very economic system he sought to destroy.

Monitoring Porn: Not Government’s Responsibility

Prime Minister John Howard used last night’s webcast to Christian groups across the country to announce a $190 million “crackdown” on pornography, terrorists and child sex predators online.

When politicians equate pornography with terrorism and child abuse, you know they aren’t approaching the matter soberly. The “think of the children” mindset is a powerful drug.

Pornography is consensual and legal. Terrorism and child abuse are reprehensible violent crimes. From a public policy perspective they require two distinct approaches.

Terrorism and child abuse require strong police action – trying to compel internet chat room to “detect” child predators is a remarkably feeble defence against child abuse. Chat room operators lack the expertise and resources to detect possible future illegal activity. It is, after all, the role of government to protect people from harm, not the role of private companies.

Anti-terrorism should also be the focus of law enforcement, not communications regulators and ISPs.

The government has been telegraphing this announcement for some time.

After hearing that a school child had been suspended for downloading pornography onto his 3G phone, Communications Minister Helen Coonan last year condemned the technology as “pipelines for perversion”. Unsurprisingly, yesterday’s Telstra results show a dramatic increase in 3G phone sales.

But until today, the Liberal Party had been much more sensible about online pornography than the Labor Party. In the 2004 election, the relatively measured approach adopted by the Coalition contrasted well with Mark Latham’s ambitious and misguided SafetyOnline filtering program.

Now ISPs are going to be compelled to offer consumers a “family friendly” broadband package, which will filter out sites that do not meet the approval of the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Such ISP-level filtering will be powerless against pornography distribution over peer-to-peer networks, chat sites or even email. Teenagers eager to get their hands on some porn will not be at all deterred.

For this reason, parents have to bear the primary responsibility for monitoring their children’s online activity. They already have a remarkable array of tools to do so. Many internet service providers already offer their customers free or subsidised content filters as part of their broadband package.

Terrorism and child abuse are the responsibility of governments, but monitoring the exposure of children to pornography should be the responsibility of parents and guardians.

It appears that online content regulation is another example of the general jettisoning of good public policy that has characterised the government’s last twelve months.

Is Aunty’s Strength A Net Gain?

The ABC has turned 75 and still occupies a central place in Australia’s political status quo. But getting to its 100th birthday may be tougher.

The ABC has to come to terms with the dramatic technological changes sweeping across the media landscape, changes that are slowly eroding the rationale for public broadcasting.

Unfortunately, many of Aunty’s recent attempts to shoehorn itself into the internet age have been embarrassingly awkward. The ABC has eagerly jumped at fads rather than focused on its strengths.

It has been convinced by a stream of hyperbolic and ridiculous media reports that the virtual world Second Life is the inevitable future of the internet. Second Life is essentially a glorified chat room with a focus on sex and gambling, but the public broadcaster has gullibly embraced it.

Unsurprisingly, in May the ABC’s Second Life headquarters, ABC Island, was reduced to a bombed, cratered mess by the pranksters who roam the online world.

A recent attempt to duplicate the success of the video-sharing site YouTube was also unsuccessful. The website that accompanied the screening of The Great Global Warming Swindle asked viewers to upload their own videos critiquing or commenting on the documentary. But by the time the forum was shut down, only two people had done so.

Building virtual islands and user-generated video sites are hardly central planks in the ABC’s charter. They are also a pretty questionable use of taxpayers’ money; the world doesn’t lack for YouTube clones or chat rooms. However, the ABC’s website is a relative success and understanding why can provide a template for future online activity.

The discussion forums that accompany many of its radio and television programs are popular and cost effective. The network produces a huge volume of content every day and provides much of it online as podcasts and streaming video, instantly multiplying its value for taxpayers.

Indeed, shifting material online is a far more vital task for the ABC than producing yet another mini-series based on a significant moment for the labour movement. Considering the central role the ABC has played in Australia’s history, digitising as much of its archive as possible would be a more valuable education resource.

A debate rages within the ABC as to whether to charge for access to online content. Being asked to pay for ABC programming twice, the first time through the tax system, is hard to stomach. But, more important, the worst thing for a media company is not for consumers to enjoy its content without paying but to not enjoy it at all. The media landscape is characterised by an abundance of material. In a crowded, highly competitive market, few companies can afford to deliberately exclude their consumers.

This abundance also presents a problem for the ABC. Public broadcasting is premised on scarcity. The limited space on the broadcasting spectrum, so the argument goes, means that commercial broadcasters will not be able to provide high-quality or important programming. Public broadcasting steps in to fill that gap.

But with the widespread availability of the internet, quality journalism has never been more plentiful. Quality opinion and editorial is produced by millions of amateurs and professionals, on and offline. Quality drama is available at the click of a mouse from anywhere in the world.

If anything, media consumers suffer from an overload of information and entertainment. In such an environment, it is hard to justify spending vast sums on public broadcasting. The ABC may need to look towards another programming and funding model if it is survive to meet its next big milestone, in 2032.

A useful model to consider is provided by C-SPAN, the US cable TV network dedicated to 24-hour coverage of congressional debate, campaign trail footage, speeches and book forums. C-SPAN is self-consciously focused on objectivity, even going so far as avoiding political commentary.

One of the most important roles the ABC has is broadcasting parliamentary proceedings, and the C-SPAN model would allow it to continue and expand on this valuable programming.

C-SPAN, however, is a good example of how the free market can provide quality public affairs broadcasting in the absence of government subsidy. The network is a privately run, not-for-profit company. An ABC strictly adhering to the C-SPAN model may not have to rely on tax dollars for financial support. Alternative models, such as accepting advertising or even full privatisation, have been well discussed by critics of the ABC. But probably sooner than it expects, Aunty is going to have to provide an answer to a simple question: what role should public broadcasting have in an age of media abundance?

Hands Off Software, Samuel

Nothing gets you more attention than picking on the cool kid at school.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is arguing that Google is responsible for the content of the advertisements that accompany its search results, and that it is not sufficiently obvious that they are ads.

The ACCC alleges that ads that appear to link to one firm, but in fact link to another firm, are in violation of trade practices law.

But Google already has its own dispute resolution process that adequately resolves these problems. This machinery is not there because it wants to satisfy regulatory authorities; it’s there because it is part of the search engine’s commercial attraction to ensure its links and advertisements are credible and not likely to mislead searchers.

Google’s reputation rides on the integrity of its search results. The company may seem like it owns the internet, but the history of software and computing shows us that such domination is easy to lose. Users will migrate if they stop trusting Google.

The ACCC’s second contention has more important implications. The regulator argues that Google’s ads are inadequately distinguishable from its search results.Again, this argument is easily dispensed with. Not only does Google highlight and separate ads from search results, it also clearly labels them as sponsored links.
Furthermore, it is easy to tell where links are directed – Google publishes the full address to help its users navigate their searches.
This is in addition to the status bar visible at bottom of modern web browsers, which also indicates the destination of any given link.

Internet users are fairly sophisticated at determining the validity of individual sites. They have to be – the deluge of email spam has made computer literacy a requirement.

Even so, if a search engine wanted to pepper its results with ads, it should not be against the law to do so. Publications mix paid advertisements and editorial content shamelessly, but do not find themselves the target of high-profile ACCC lawsuits and media releases.

The biggest challenge modern software companies have is developing business models that can actually turn a profit. Reckless regulatory intervention will limit the ability for firms to experiment with ad-based revenue models.

The action against Google is a symptom of a deeper struggle that government and regulators are having with the implications of digital technology and the internet. Rather than seeing the paradigmshifting opportunities of online services, they are merely being seen as a further opportunity to expand the turf of the regulator.

ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel has repeatedly argued that online sporting content provided exclusively to Telstra BigPond subscribers could constitute a monopolistic bottleneck to competition. Never mind that this is a whole new service developed entrepreneurially by Telstra, and the rights to provide this content to subscribers had been ascertained by fair competition on the open market. Nor that Optus and other service providers are also seeking to provide unique content of their own.

The regulator has announced that this is the first action of its type internationally. But this is not entirely the case. By arguing that Google is responsible for the content of its ads, the ACCC joins individuals and firms who sue the search engine for merely linking to objectionable material.

Such activity is becoming common internationally – rather than suing the site or sponsor of the offending material, litigants target the much higher-profile Google. This ensures publicity and targets an entity that is wealthy enough to pay should the suit be successful.

There is a further worrying implication of this action. The software industry used to be clearly separate from the regulatory morass that rules other industries. The industry moves astonishingly fast, has no entry barriers and is characterised by the sort of innovation and entrepreneurial action that renders regulatory oversight redundant.

But in Europe and the United States, the potential expansion of regulation to online services has forced tech companies to set up lobbying divisions in Brussels and Washington staffed with lawyers and government relations specialists.

The last thing the industry needs is to compel software engineers to sit down with regulators before they can offer new services. To do so would be to invite the same regulatory stagnation that has enveloped telecommunications.

Big Brother vs. Big Brother: How politicians failed to understand reality television and in their confusion instead decided to regulate the internet

With Hugh Tobin

If the people who watch Big Brother are so stupid, why do we allow them to vote? After all, the cultural criticism of reality television is, implicitly, a criticism of its audience.

The political condemnation which has greeted a series of reality television controversies could easily backfire. The series is simple entertainment, but it is entertainment designed to reflect the social lives and concerns of its audience. There is more to Big Brother than voyeurism.

Nevertheless, in June this year, the cultural pessimists who have made sport of condemning the reality television genre were provided with yet another target for their concentrated hysteria. A new Dutch reality television programme, The Big Donor Show, starred a terminally ill woman with a kidney to donate. Three potential donor recipients were to compete for the life-saving organ. (The programme’s logo tastefully featured a drawing of a kidney in place of the final ‘o’ of ‘donor’.)

Of course, it was a stunt, designed to highlight the shortage of organ donors in the Netherlands and, indeed, around the world. The conservative politicians who had been quick to condemn the programme and call for its censorship awkwardly tried to back away.

The show may have been designed to attract attention to the shortage of organ donors, but the politicians who instinctively shot from the hip illustrated just how highly politicised reality television has become. Reality television attracts vehement criticism—criticism about its supposed emphasis on sex, its voyeurism, its artlessness, and its seeming appeal to the lowest common denominator.

On the surface, many of these objections seem unfounded. Artless voyeurism and sexual innuendo have not merely been a prominent feature of the history of television, but probably a big source of the medium’s popularity. Reality television, then, is simply another genre of entertainment, and should be judged by the same standards as ‘traditional’ genres such as sport or drama. Putting aside the intellectual snobbery adopted by culturally conservative politicians, there’s nothing harmful about a bit of trash TV.

The success of the Dutch kidney donor stunt was only made possible by exploiting the instant notoriety with which reality television has become synonymous. And just as in the Netherlands, over-zealous Australian politicians have rushed to condemn the tone and content of the genre. But the political response in Australia has gone much further than simple statements to the press. The knee-jerk reaction to a series of reality television scandals has led to a major regulatory expansion for online content and delivery.

The controversy surrounding Big Brother in mid-2006 has inspired the federal government to increase the powers of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to police mobile phone and online content. A hastily written piece of legislation now urges the regulator to develop industry standards for the entire Australian internet community, as well as enforce the removal of ‘objectionable’ material here and overseas.

Vague borders

It’s no surprise that Big Donor would originate in the Netherlands. Endemol, the production company which produced the stunt, was one of the major companies responsible for the modern wave of reality television. It produced the first series of Big Brother which aired in 1999 on Dutch commercial television.

The first of the Survivor franchise was aired in Sweden in 1997 as Expedition: Robinson, and 19 Entertainment’s Idol format began in 2001 with its UK series, Pop Idol. These have all been franchised internationally: there are now 95 different winners of the Idol series around the world, and more than 160 winners of Big Brother.

But reality television, a loose genre which presents largely unscripted non-actors in various contrived situations, has a long history. 1948 — the same year in which George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four — also saw the first television broadcast of Candid Camera, the long-running and influential concealed camera show which pioneered the genre.

The borders of reality television are unclear. The genre borders upon documentary filmmaking — programmes such as the US’s COPS and Australia’s Border Security, or ‘celebreality’ shows, such as The Osbournes and Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, document the daily lives of non-actors. The Seven Up! Series — the latest episode of which was reviewed in the December 2006 edition of the IPA Review — also shares some similarities with this strand of the genre.

What constitutes ‘reality’ television is often a matter of degree — many of the staples of the genre have close affinities with more traditional programme formats. Like a game show, the participants in Big Brother compete against each other for a prize, as do contestants in the Idol and Survivor formats. Talk shows such as the Jerry Springer Show have also sometimes been classified as part of the genre when they actively try to foment on-air drama between participants.

Much reality television blurs into fiction. The question of just how ‘real’ reality television is is made particularly problematic by shows such as Laguna Beach, which purports to follow a group of wealthy teenagers living in Orange County, California. Laguna Beach features a not-insignificant amount of scripting and ‘production manipulation’.

Scandal and controversy have accompanied reality television since its early days — reality television has been a more powerful conduit for debate about social and cultural issues than any number of high-minded, preachy Hollywood films. In the 1973 US series An American Family, which centred around a family experiencing a divorce, the eldest child’s homosexuality was the lightning rod for controversy.

In 1992’s Sylvania Waters, a series which filmed an Australian family, the perceived and real alcoholism, racism, and materialism of the Laurie Donaher/Noeline Baker de facto family drew much criticism. The Sun headlined its story on the series when it debuted in the UK: ‘Meet Noeline. By Tonight You’ll Hate Her Too’.

The most controversial programmes, however, have been those which have placed participants in special living environments. MTV’s The Real World has, since 1992, placed participants together in an urban house and given them jobs and group activities. Tensions and arguments over race and sexual orientations have been a recurring theme throughout the series.

Politics and Big Brother

Unsurprisingly, the Big Brother franchise has a tradition of controversy. Last year’s accusations of racism in the UK Celebrity Big Brother gained the British series world-wide attention. Politicians who have been so eager for the limelight that they have volunteered as participants have come under heavy public fire. The Scottish MP George Galloway thought that the best way to capitalise on his notoriety after being accused of Iraqi Oil-for-Food corruption was to appear on the 2006 edition of Celebrity Big Brother. The minority whip of the Mexican Green Party also participated in a 2004 Mexican Big Brother, to much political criticism.

The Australian Big Brother may not have featured any politicians as housemates yet, but the franchise has been readily embraced as a political totem. Beginning in 2001, early Australian seasons of Big Brother were aired with relatively little controversy. 2003 saw a small incident as one housemate identified a minor in an ongoing court trial — the producers frantically shut down the live Internet feeds and official Website discussion boards. A 2004 contestant staged a silent protest upon his eviction from the house, taping his mouth shut and holding up a banner reading ‘Free th refugees’ (sic), to the consternation of producers who had planned the usual extensive post-eviction interview.

The Dutch production company which developed the Big Brother format originally conceived as few as six contestants locked up in a house for a year. The format was partly inspired by the early Webcam movement, a late 1990s’ trend where exhibitionists document a usually unedited video stream of their lives onto the Internet, including sexual encounters.

And it is this lineage of total surveillance and exhibitionism that has provided the source of the major controversy. The 2005 series’ emphasis on the sex appeal of the housemates, in particular the weekly 9.40pm ‘Uncut’ programme which presented material not appropriate for the 7pm ‘Daily Show’, was a focal point of political condemnation. ‘Uncut’ featured, for the most part, conversations about the sex lives of the housemates, shower scene footage, and general playing around.

Following complaints from the Australian Family Association, Liberal MP Trish Draper condemned the programme as pornographic, arguing that the housemates have ‘an aspiration to be porn stars’. Big Brother participants are certainly exhibitionists, but it would undoubtedly be easier to get work on a porn film than become a housemate.

In 2005, ‘Uncut’ was the problem. Once the programme had attracted the attention of the Communications Minister, Helen Coonan, media regulators determined that the material chosen for broadcast was in breach of the free-to-air code of conduct. For the next year’s season the programme was retitled ‘Adults Only’ and the sexual content watered down. (Nevertheless, by June 2006, Channel Ten had succumbed to political pressure from government backbenchers and pulled the show; even though it was, as everybody acknowledged, firmly within the bounds of broadcasting regulations and the television industry’s code of conduct.)

But for Big Brother 2006, the biggest controversy wasn’t what was broadcast on free-to-air television. It was the Internet-only, subscription-only live feed which recorded the alleged sexual harassment by two contestants of a third female participant.

Steve Fielding of Family First led the critical charge of criticism at the show: ‘This show legitimises behaviour that is not acceptable anywhere in our community and this latest incident is disgusting and degrading and, quite frankly, this is not a community standard that’s acceptable … Family First is calling for Big Brother to be pulled’.

The Prime Minister also called Big Brother a ‘stupid program’, and the Communications Minister said that it was ‘disturbing and offensive’. Predictably, the ACMA was once again pulled back into the fray.

Whether the ACMA had jurisdiction over the online material was, however, uncertain. The incident was not broadcast on television. As the ACMA noted in its report, the footage wasn’t even stored on the Big Brother website — the site did not provide an archive of the feed. But enterprising subscribers had recorded it themselves, and the incident was soon viewable on video-sharing sites such as YouTube.

The ACMA’s report concluded that there was little the regulator could do about what was provided online. For the government this was an insufficiently dramatic political response to the August 2006 incident.

So now, in 2007, we have legislation which gives the ACMA that authority. The Communications Legislation Amendment (Content Services) Bill, which passed through parliament in late June, gives the regulator authority over ‘ephemeral’ content services such as Internet live feeds, as well as the power to regulate ‘convergent’ devices, such as mobile phones offering video or other content. But the importance of the new legislation is not limited to an expansion of the ACMA’s jurisdiction. The law places the regulator firmly at the centre of ascertaining the responsibility for content created and delivered on the internet.

The creation of content by Internet users, rather than professional content producers, has been one of the primary innovations in entertainment technology over the last decade. Sites such as YouTube provide a neutral distribution system for users to upload and broadcast that content. But the introduction of this legislation requires the site to police the material it hosts, rather than placing the responsibility with the producer of the material. As Microsoft has noted, this surpasses the high regulatory bar set by the European Union—an unfavourable comparison.

The high pace of innovation has blurred the distinction between forms of content and delivery—indeed, this is a good working definition of ‘convergence’. In an effort to translate the complex technological and cultural changes of the content industry, the legislation confuses and over-regulates.

For example, there are 22 exemptions to what is considered, for the purposes of the legislation, as a ‘content service’. Entrepreneurs eager to found their own YouTube killer in Australia will struggle to navigate the convoluted legal framework and liability issues. They will be doubly frustrated if they had originally been seduced by the federal government’s public desire to encourage a local content industry.

Between the audience and the activists

As has regularly been pointed out both by critics and contestants, ‘The Daily Show’ and ‘Uncut’/‘Adults Only’ programmes of Big Brother are not strictly ‘real’. Programme producers can cut and edit what is finally broadcast to direct or create narratives, play up potentially dramatic situations and even manipulate audience perceptions of individual housemates. But they have very little capacity to manipulate the live Internet feed.

What is shown live from the house is as close to ‘reality’ as audiences are likely to get from the artificial environment of Big Brother. If the programme’s original conceit was to broadcast the mundane lives of a group of people in an isolated house, then live streaming is the ultimate manifestation of that idea.

When politicians criticise or disparage the contestants on Big Brother, they implicitly criticise the (voting) audience.

In the UK, the programme’s audience is 58 per cent female, and 49 per cent are aged between 16 and 34. The Australian audience has a similar composition. The participants on most of the standard Big Brother series are deliberately chosen to replicate the likely audience.

This same demographic now spends more time online (38 per cent) than with any other entertainment medium. Again, the activity online provides an interesting parallel with the Big Brother format. This is the same generation that is likely to have a public profile on MySpace or Facebook, to record their daily activities publicly on services such as Twitter, to run a blog, to produce YouTube commentaries, or in some other way to participate in online discussions and forums.

Big Brother may be exhibitionism on the scale of free-to-air television, but the audience also practices their own smaller-scale exhibitionism online.

Politicians eager to court this key demographic should be wary of such instant point-scoring. The reactionary attitude of the political class to the genre is, particularly for young viewers, indicative of a failure to understand youth culture.

One recent paper in the International Journal of Cultural Studies has found that UK Big Brother viewers were, when assessing a politician, most likely to give their support to someone who they saw as an ‘ordinary’ person. The programme, this finding implies, is popular because the audience can relate to the housemates; and politics is unpopular because the participants are harder to relate to.

How individuals acted in the artificial environment of the Big Brother house was seen as a reliable guide to their personality and ability—a view that contrasts poorly with finely stage-managed political personas. The ‘Uncut’/‘Adults Only’ programme was both unfiltered titillation and a candid display of key aspects of the housemate’s personalities.

Endemol has itself encouraged the comparison between the programme and politics. The company’s UK division sponsored a 2003 study which contrasted what it saw as the typical Big Brother viewer — typically female, under 40, and largely uninterested in politics — with ‘Political Junkies’—male, 50-plus, professionals, who regularly discussed politics in social settings. Endemol’s UK chairman wrote in the study that the British government needed to replicate the most appealing aspects of Big Brother and ‘broaden its accountability, allowing the electorate more control via interactivity and thus earning more respect from the new generation of voters’.

Politicians should probably not apply to be housemates. George Galloway was, after all, voted out of the house early into the season. But the remarkably confused interpretation of the implications and importance of reality television and the internet has led Australian politicians to demonstrate just how little they understand this key demographic.

When the frills of Big Brother — the prize money, the weekly voting, the Friday-night games — are stripped away, the programme does nothing more than stick 14 young people in a house and watches what they do. They may be more attractive and extroverted than the norm, but they represent a cross-section of the social, political and economic make-up of their generation.

Politicians would do better to watch the show than to breathlessly condemn it.

Libertarian ascendancy

Review of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, by Brian Doherty (PublicAffairs, 2007, 768 pages)

If one relationship illustrates the uncomfortable and slightly paradoxical relationship between modern, big-tent conservatism and the radical libertarian movement, it is the one between Barry Goldwater and Karl Hess.

Hess was first and foremost an activist, standing in contrast to the more numerous academic types who constituted the American libertarian movement in the 1960s and 1970s. He was firmly counterculture. He sported a Castro beard, and dressed in that same South American revolutionary style. While Hess’s right-of-centre credentials were firmly entrenched — as a journalist for Newsweek he had expressed what was seen as an unbecoming enthusiasm for McCarthy-era anti-communism, and his own writing was strongly libertarian, as well as staunchly anti-war — he conspicuously allied himself with the New Left in the latter half of the 1960s.

Barry Goldwater, whose ideological footprint was stamped with his ghost-written Conscience of a Conservative, was the 1964 Republican nominee for President. Goldwater’s foils were the Soviets and liberals, in equal weight. And Karl Hess, the future counterculture icon, was his unlikely speechwriter.

By the early 1970s, Hess’s position as a libertarian anti-war protester had been the subject of numerous profiles in the mainstream press. His relationship with Goldwater was, however, just as strong. Hess maintained that Goldwater, despite his position as the proto-typical American conservative, was still a perfect fit for his libertarian anti-war coalition, telling the Washington Post that ‘I don’t know anybody who would make a better Weatherman’ — the anti-war terror cell of the radical left. In an almost beautiful vignette of improbable friendship, Goldwater, bumping into Hess on opposite sides of a rally outside the capital in 1969, pulled him aside to asked him to ‘give me a call as soon as you’re free’.

Libertarianism, as Bryan Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement reveals starkly, has always existed uncomfortably alongside its fairweather partner, conservatism. Libertarians, as Doherty points out, often have close personal and institutional connections with the traditional right — they share the same think-tanks, libertarians are often members of the dominant right party, and the two make common cause on many issues, particularly free market economics.

But in the areas of sex, drugs, some science issues such as cloning and stem-cell research, and (often) war, libertarians deviate sharply from the conservative movement. Ayn Rand, in her typically venomous, Randian manner, held conservatives ranging from National Review’s William F. Buckley to Ronald Reagan in utter contempt, dismissing them as wallowing in the ‘God-family-country swamp’.

And that swamp is repelled by libertarians’ radical views on emotionally charged issues, some of which can border almost on satire. Libertarianism often rejoices in how off-putting its beliefs are, relishing its outsider status. Doherty quotes a founder of the New York State Libertarian Party who says that ‘hard-core libertarianism has no mass constituency … there is no mass constituency for seven-year-old heroin dealers to be able to buy tanks with their profits from prostitution’.

Doherty structures Radicals for Capitalism around five major figures: four economists, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard & Milton Friedman, and a novelist, Ayn Rand. The title of Doherty’s book itself is in part a compromise for Rand, who hated the term ‘libertarian’ in the same manner that she hated everything else.

But around these well-knowns, Doherty brings in their intellectual ancestors and heirs, and many other peripheral figures largely ignored by modern libertarians. For instance, Doherty profiles the group Spiritual Mobilization, Christian libertarian pamphleteers who splintered out of Leonard Read’s Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). (Libertarian mythology, for some reason, tends to downplay the importance of explicitly Christian free marketeers — the Spiritual Mobilization group have suffered from the same selective memory-loss that the Free Bible Movement has suffered from in the popular mythology of the free trade Anti-Corn Law movement.)

Modern libertarian thought has coalesced around the United States and, as Doherty points out, rightly so. Read your Constitution; there has scarcely been a stronger declaration of the rights of the individual. But the history of nineteenth-century America depicts the demise of anti-statism as the dominant American ideology.

Radicals for Capitalism — after briefly surveying proto-libertarians such as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field, Yale political scientist William Graham Sumner and political philosopher Herbert Spencer — begins the twentieth century with what were, by then, termed the ‘Old Right’ — a small, disconnected cadre of anti-statist intellectuals repulsed by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fascistic New Deal.

The intellectual isolation of the Old Right in the country that should be most receptive to its ideas sets the trajectory of the Libertarian movement until at least the 1970s. Movements cannot thrive without an institutional base. Anti-staters before the Second World War were first and foremost intellectuals, and produced a large amount of material. But they failed to reassert themselves in the intellectual landscape of the time, let alone dominate it.

They were not helped by their theoretically incomplete political and economic programme — Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek were still formulating their comprehensive treatises before the war. The Old Right was an informal coalition built around a hatred of Roosevelt.

Libertarians emerged from the war even further from the intellectual zeitgeist. No post-war libertarian set the tone and structure of the movement more than Leonard E. Read. Read was a refugee from a pro-business lobby group which was usually free-market, but had the frustrating habit of providing an outlet for ‘both sides’ of any given debate. The anti-market side, Read thought, already dominated public debate — why build them another platform from which to attack American capitalism?

Read left the lobby group in 1946 and founded The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) — the prototypical free-market think-tank. Read’s and the FEE’s approach was, as the name suggests, a purely intellectual and educative endeavour. FEE’s mission was to provide the intellectual stimulant for the remnants of American anti-state thought, and hopefully to convince others, through argument alone, of its merits.

The FEE defined the structure of Libertarianism. Until the Vietnam War era, libertarians almost uniformly focused their activities on education and intellectual outreach. ‘Full-service’ think-tanks, specialist schools such as the charismatic Robert LeFevre’s Freedom School, and outreach organisations focused around varieties of libertarian thought such as Ayn Rand’s objectivism — the movement spent the post-war decades building up the institutional base which it had lacked for most of the country’s history. Having been largely expelled from the government-supported educational establishment and its lucrative tenure tracks, libertarian intellectuals have had to be both scholars and entrepreneurs to stay afloat.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s and 1970s that these efforts really started to pay off. A new generation of libertarians mixed activism over academia, aping the activities of the left. The Libertarian Party held its first convention in Denver in 1972.

Karl Hess — as far from a Read-style educator as can possibly be imagined — with other young libertarians strategically aligned himself with the New Left. It was not a particularly comfortable fit. The movement was still dominated by intellectual types—as it is today. But as these intellectuals gained confidence, their proselytising took a more public dimension. Doherty relates a particular prank of the Circle Bastiat Boys, a group comprising Murray Rothbard, Leonard Liggio, Ralph Raico and others:

One of their favourite stunts involved filling the studio of a televised talk by the governor of New Jersey, hitting him with questions as if their ideological universal was the norm and his some sort of aberration. ‘What, governor? You are for public schools? Where did you get such strange ideas? Can you recommend any books on the subject?

The libertarian movement in the 1970s was a dramatically different one from the isolated remnants faced by Leonard Read, and its expansion was in no small part his achievement. Resembling the state of the movement in 2007, libertarian ideas formed the basis of a magnificent variety of sub-culture groups. And not just famous groups such as Randian Objectivists or Young Americans for Freedom. They also formed a quite sizable part of the hippy and drug movements, science fiction writers, and fans, even early computer enthusiasts.

A proliferation of small independent zines were produced across the country, amongst them Efficacy, Rights by Right, Bull$heet, Living Free and Invitu$. The now-widely circulated Reason Magazine, of which Doherty is a senior editor, was founded in 1968 as a movement zine, dedicated to libertarian gossip and libel.

Libertarianism is a large enough movement to spread out well across the academic/activist divide. However, by the 1990s, it is possible to speak of ‘establishment libertarianism’. Libertarian arguments are, certainly, a constituent part of liberal economic theory. How much the ‘radicals’ of Doherty’s book propelled the general policy drift towards free markets around the end of the century is an open question. We know that Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek had a significant impact by the concrete policies and politicians directly inspired by the two academics. But individualists such as Andrew Joseph Galambos, who argued that his ideas were so firmly his private property that you had no right even to describe them to others, perhaps not so much.

The Adam Smith Tie establishment — a network of libertarian-leaning academics and policy-wonks centred around free-market focused think-tanks such as the Cato Institute — has arguably been the movement’s greatest political asset. The employment stability, institutional base and open forum that think-tanks have given to free market writers, thinkers and activists contrasts with the unfortunate isolation faced by Mises, Hayek, and even Rothbard (although, one suspects, Rothbard’s instability was partly of his own making).

These institutions have also provided public credibility for libertarian ideas, even if they by necessity have had to couch their message in practical, rather than moral terms. One political philosopher, writing for Cato recently, titled his essay on broadcasting the libertarian message ‘I’m not a utilitarian, but I play one on TV’. The individuals who work at think-tanks typically have a wide span of philosophical views, but the messages they broadcast are more Friedmanite practicality than Randian moral elitism.

Although Doherty’s book is not an intellectual history, he handles the intellectual issues clearly and honestly. His discussion of Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy the State, a foundation text of the Old Right, reveals its uncomfortable ideological fit — its place amongst college-age libertarians is earned almost entirely by the quality of its title.

For an Australian reader, Radicals for Capitalism suffers a little from its scope. Little sense — at least once the Austrians Hayek and Mises move to America — is given of the international environment of the American libertarians. Doherty notes the role of Antony Fisher, a founder of the UK’s Institute of Economic Affairs, at franchising his think-tank model across the United States, but, with those few exceptions, American libertarianism is a closed shop. This is perhaps an unfair criticism — Doherty’s book is unambiguously a history of the modern American libertarian movement — so a synthesis of world-wide radical pro-capitalists remains to be written.

Despite its dramatic gains over the past 50 years, libertarianism still remains as marginalia in American politics. The New York Times’ review of Radicals for Capitalism demonstrates this neatly. The reviewer, an economics writer named David Leonhardt, after quickly dismissing libertarian ideas as a rhetorical aberration, dug through Doherty’s book to cherry-pick as many bad things as they could find — Milton Friedman in Pinochet’s Chile, Rothbard’s youthful flirtation with the segregationist Presidential candidate Sturm Thormond, and the anti-Semitic Merwin Hart (whose name is mentioned exactly once, and in an obviously negative context).

Leonhardt complains that ‘the book fails to ask why people who claim to love freedom have so often had a soft spot for those who would deny it to others’. It would be hard to make the case that Doherty’s book describes a libertarian movement that didn’t care about human, political and economic rights, but in the hands of the establishment left, that is its inevitable conclusion. He ends his review, appropriately, with a discussion of global warming — whatever you think about the left, they sure are focused. Leonhardt’s ignorance of libertarian beliefs and principles is, to be charitable, a reflection of the publishing and writing industry’s reluctance to produce books about the ideological foundations of the free market or the conservative sides of politics.

Sprawling and comprehensive, Radicals for Capitalism replaces Jerome Tuccille’s now 30-years-old It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand as the ‘official’ movement history. Doherty contextualises libertarian figures like Friedman and Rand amongst their peers in the wider movement and produces, as a result, a broad picture of an ideology in its ascendancy.

The Regulatory State’s democracy problem

Let’s briefly grant critics of ‘neo-liberalism’ their preferred terminology. Are Australia’s governments entranced by dreams of a neoliberal utopia?

‘Neo-liberalism’ has become commentariat dogma on both the left and the right. As any number of opinion pieces describe, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan engaged in privatisation and deregulation on a massive scale, fuelled by ideological zealotry. In Australia, Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating did the same, but in contrast to their Atlantic allies, they exhibited the measured and reasonable approach that could only be grounded in Treasury advice.

By the late 1990s, after a decade of continuous economic reform across the country, Australian governments had, sometimes reluctantly, handed their role in the provision of services to the private sector. Neo-liberalism, we read, rules the day.

But this reading of the form and function of Australia’s system of government is deeply incomplete. Instead, in 2007, the best characterisation of Australia’s political system is not a neo-liberal, ‘nightwatchman’ state, nor is it the social-democratic welfare state which dominated the twentieth century. Rather, it is a ‘Regulatory State’.

The Regulatory State shares elements of these traditional political models. Like the former, it has an economy relatively open to foreign capital and products. It has privatised most of its publicly-owned monopolies. And like the latter, Australia has a large welfare state, as well as extensive government provision of health and education services.

Australia is not, however, merely at a mid-point between liberalism and socialism. The phrase ‘Regulatory State’ indicates a separate alternative — the regulation of our economic and social life has come to be the primary activity of government, and the primary means by which government interacts with the economy and the individuals who comprise it.

In a Regulatory State, not only is regulating the first priority of the state, but regulation defines the state. It is a revealing way of analyzing Australian democracy.

Regulation governs our commercial interactions. It governs the work environment, the social environment — reflect for a moment on how many regulations there are by which you are suddenly administered the moment you walk into a bar — and the home environment.

From a historical perspective, regulation acts as a substitute for public ownership. The privatisations which critics of neoliberalism have fixed upon as indicative of a laissez-faire economy have been matched with a correspondingly dramatic increase in legislation and subordinate legislation to control these newly private entities. The Regulatory State has found that its social, environmental and economic purposes can still be achieved by the use of regulation, while avoiding the burden of actually owning, and being responsible for, the public utilities themselves.

The modern left’s primary criticism of privatisation is that private ownership will not deliver the social benefits that public ownership had (or could have). And yet no state business has been privatised without being saddled with an extensive regulatory programme aimed at trying to keep those benefits?

One exception to this is the padded workforces of the former state government trading entities. Privatisation — and its diluted form, corporatisation — has been fundamentally about forcing efficiencies by shedding labour. This willingness to jettison excessive, unionised jobs itself says much about the ideological progress of social-democratic parties. But job shedding in these former state entreprises has been accompanied by the creation of jobs in production management, as well as regulatory and governance jobs.

Almost all of the growth in regulation under the modern Regulatory State is social, rather than economic.

Environmental regulation has a long history, but its marked rise in the last quarter of a century was inaugurated by the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment and the subsequent establishment in many nations, including Australia, of national environmental agencies. Consumer product safety, particularly in the transport sector, and Occupational Health and Safety regulations have also increased rapidly. Corporate and financial regulation has also displayed particular growth, often mandated by parallel international trends, but also propelled by what former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has described as an increasingly risk-averse population.

Charts 1 and 2 show just how dramatic this increase in regulatory and legislative activity has been. The impact of these regulations is cumulative — firms and individuals have to comply with the total body of law, not merely the law that has been passed in the most recent session of parliament. Certainly, much law is passed to override or amend existing legislation, but that in itself constitutes a further cost.

Furthermore, these charts do not include the web of quasi-regulations, codes of conduct, guidelines and other ‘voluntary’ self-regulations, which are often policed by regulators, or developed by the government, or instituted to ward off potential legislation. It would be a mistake to ignore these much-harder-to-quantify interventions when trying to ascertain just how significant regulation is in Australia.

Using the direct tools of legislation, or the indirect tools of subordinate legislation and quasi-regulation, government intervention in the economy is expanding, rather than, as left-wing critics would describe it, receding. Furthermore, regulation has assumed a sort of entrepreneurial role for government intervention—a mechanism to search out new areas of the economy just begging to be regulated.

This casts Australian governments’ enthusiastic regulatory activity in a new light. The development of regulation is unambiguously a political activity whose direction is determined by political imperatives, and which has just as many political consequences as it has economic and social consequences.

Independent Regulatory Agencies

The direction of regulation may be determined by elected legislators, but its administration is delegated to the central institution of the Regulatory State — the independent regulatory agency.

These institutions are deemed ‘independent’ because they exist outside the normal bureaucratic chain of accountability — ministers and other elected representatives are not directly responsible for the agencies’ actions.

Independent regulators are accountable through such indirect means as procedural norms, requirements to be ‘transparent’, jurisdictional limitations and, as a last resort, the right of aggrieved firms and individuals to judicial review of the regulators’ decision-making processes. Nevertheless, within the confines of these mechanisms of accountability, regulators have significant discretionary power.

While the United Kingdom had inspectors policing factories for violations of the Factory Act from 1833, the independent regulatory agency is largely an American invention. The socialist fetish for public ownership never took strong hold in the United States, but, pioneering the now familiar pattern, regulation administered by independent regulatory agencies provided a substitute. In 1887, the Interstate Commerce Commission was formed, followed quickly by the Food and Drug Administration (1906) and the Fair Trade Commission (1913).

Then, as now, independence was intended to protect objectivity — the regulators would be friendly to business, but neutral in their application of the law.

But this balanced objectivity has also been under-mined historically by the bureaucratic impulses of the independent regulator to expand its jurisdiction, its powers and its discretionary budget. Regulators lobby governments for increased regulations, increased powers to administer them and, of course, increased budgets and staff. Regulators involve themselves more deeply in the activities of the firms they regulate, trying to discern the levels of compliance while, at the same time, trying to expand their jurisdiction into other industries and sectors.

For instance, having decided that the free-for-all internet is littered with bottlenecks to genuine competition, the ACCC is using the migration of media content online to explore new opportunities for regulation — a textbook example of regulatory creep.

In Australia, there are approximately 60 federal regulatory agencies, and 40 federal ministerial councils. We know that there are approximately 70 agencies in Victoria (the only state which publishes this data publicly), but extrapolating that figure, the Productivity Commission estimates that there are up to 600 regulators across the country.

Doing a similar extrapolation for the budgets of those agencies, and taking into account government departments with regulatory functions, inter-governmental bodies, and the range of quasi-official agencies and boards, it is easy to imagine that at least $10 billion is spent on regulating our activities.

Reigning over this web of institutions that is the Regulatory State are three ‘mega-regulators’ — the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA), the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) — the results of a concerted effort over the last decade-and-a-half to consolidate federal and state regulatory agencies into single, one-stop-shop regulators.

Rather than having their jurisdictions delineated by the industries they regulate, instead they are delineated by the regulator’s ‘function’. ASIC is responsible for consumer and investment protection in cases of market manipulations such as insider trading. APRA is responsible for the regulation of information asymmetries in financial services, and the ACCC is responsible for anti-competitive conduct and consumer protection economy-wide. Old industry-based regulators, such as the Insurance and Superannuation Commission, had their functions divvyed up into the new functional bodies.

Just as the volume of regulation is growing, so are the three ‘mega-regulators’. We can see, since the turn of the twenty-first century, a significant increase in government spending and staff. We see increased media profiles and public relations activities. (The ACCC’s activism in the media was the subject of much criticism during the 2003 Dawson Inquiry into the Trade Practices Act — chastened, it decreased those activities immediately following the Dawson report, but has been steadily returning to its former levels.)

These agencies preside over the most intense period of regulatory and legislative activity in Australian history. This gives them enormous political power and influence — for which they are largely seperate from the traditional chains of democratic accountability.

Distracted by ‘red tape’

Regulation, admittedly, doesn’t get much good press. But the criticisms that regulations do receive are revealingly narrow.

Overbearing business regulation stifles incentives to take risks and to innovate’, wrote Labor’s Small Business spokesman Craig Emerson in The Australian earlier this year, ‘crucial to the efficient functioning of a market economy and productivity growth’. Undeniably true.

But the content of ALP policy focuses on reducing ‘red tape’ — only a small part of the total regulatory burden. Eliminating ‘duplication’ or regulatory confusion, which constitutes the bulk of ‘deregulatory’ proposals by both the ALP and the Coalition Government, does not address the real issue — regulations which discourage investment and entrepreneurial activity, and divert firms away from profit-making opportunities.

For example, Telstra estimates that it has to provide the government with 486 compliance reports annually — a significant red tape, or ‘paperburden’ cost. But the real cost of regulation of the telecommunications sector, however, is much higher, constituting the forsaken investment in infrastructure, the cost of universal service obligations, and the cost of delayed innovation across the economy. Similarly, the tomes of compliance reports required by ASIC dwarf the less tangible costs of diminished entrepreneurship and reduced corporate flexibility.

Focusing only on the paperburden cost of regulations is like focusing on the time spent filling out a tax return rather than the amount of tax paid.

In fact, the anti-red tape movement is reminiscent of regular movements throughout the twentieth century for more ‘efficient’ government. An efficient government is not a virtue if it is just as large as an inefficient one — indeed, efficiency can help it dominate the economy even more.

The bipartisan red tape proposals do nothing to reduce the size of government and its impact on the economy. Promises to reduce the red-tape burden offer little if they are not a constituent part of a promise to decrease the scope or extent of regulatory interventions.

A reduction in the volume of regu-lations and the extent of regulatory intervention in the economy will not only have economic benefits, it will have democratic benefits as well.

The dominance of the indepen-dent regulatory agencies in political and economic life is dependent upon this enormous pool of legislation and regulation — the problems of accountability and discretionary power will be resolved only when that pool is drained.

Regulation is the defining feature of the modern Australian state, and the regulatory problem requires a political solution.