Micromanagement In The Regulatory State

Another year, another 6,369 pages of law. Spread over 150 acts, that was the Commonwealth’s total new legislation in 2010.
Not a bad effort considering their usual legislative binge was interrupted by an election.
The received wisdom about Australia’s political and economic history over the last few decades is wrong.
Think we’ve been living in an era of deregulation? In an era of small, timid, “neo-liberal” government?
The data suggests otherwise.
The Australian Government has been massively, overwhelmingly, and comprehensively expanding its intervention into all aspects of the economy.
Compare 2010’s 6,369 pages to the 1980s, when the parliament only passed around 2,000 pages of law every year. Twenty years before that parliament would pass even less: just 500.
The first few Commonwealth parliaments were lucky to pass more than 100 pages a year. In 1907 the Governor-General ticked off on a paltry 17 pages of new law.
It took just a few hundred pages of legislation to set up the Commonwealth. But 110 years later it apparently takes more than 6,000 new pages to just keep it running.
Admittedly, these figures come with a lot of caveats. In 2010, Australians didn’t have to obey 150 more laws: some legislation is passed to alter or repeal existing legislation. Not all of it, by any means, but some.
And the figures don’t factor in the immense volumes of statutory legislation implemented by the Commonwealth last year, usually hovering around 2,500 to 3,000 pages. Or the pages of legislation passed by state governments, which varies between 1,000 and 4,000 depending where you live. The states implement statutory legislation too.
Yet with all its caveats, looking at the number of pages of law passed each year illustrates two things.
First: the more laws a government passes, the busier it is. We have increasingly busy governments. Australia’s legal and regulatory system is being continuously shuffled around. Continuous change has its consequences. To take one of the more prominent examples, in the last few years businesses have had to get up to speed with niceties of Workplace Agreements, then the complexities of WorkChoices, and now the nuances of Fair Work.
Second: the regulatory framework which governs the economy is increasingly complex. Longer laws are more complex laws. The WorkChoices act was 762 pages. The Fair Work act was 651. People (not just lawyers) have to read and understand those tomes.
Regulation spawns more regulation. Not all regulation works to achieve its goals, so regulators and politicians just pile more and more rules on top. And a great deal of regulation is imposed just for its symbolic benefit – the need to “do something” in response to public demand. The OECD calls all this “regulatory inflation”.
Condemning the “volume and complexity of federal laws”, the Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Australia Patrick Keane told the Australian Financial Review Friday that “opening the tax act is like entering the door to a parallel universe”.
This growth in government control over the economy is hard to reconcile with Kevin Rudd’s view that a “particular brand of free-market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism and excessive greed” has dominated the last decades.
Take the now-orthodox view the global financial crisis was caused by a lack of regulation. This view seems to ignore the abundance of regulation governing the banking and finance sector in the United States, and, indeed, globally.
Certainly, in the aftermath of the crisis, a batch of new international banking regulations have been implemented, most notably the Basel III accords. But rarely is it pointed out there was a Basel I and a Basel II. Each were substantial regulatory frameworks themselves.
Indeed, the perverse incentives created by Basel II’s capital requirements (which encouraged banks to hoard AAA-rated mortgage backed securities) were one of the major causes of the crisis in the first place.
Other regulations administered by the American Securities and Exchange Commission protected the private ratings agencies – which granted the AAA grades – from competition. It gets worse. Jeffrey Friedman convincingly argued in Cato Policy Journal last year that not even the SEC knew about this latter regulation, which it itself had imposed in 1975.
If there are too many regulations for even the regulators to keep track, then our problem isn’t too little regulation.
The expansion of regulation is a bipartisan project. The Howard government was just as enthusiastic about regulating as the Rudd and Gillard Government has been.
With 6,369 pages of legislation, 2010 was unfortunately an unexceptional year.
So it’s time we recognised our political system for what it is. It’s not neoliberal. Nor is it social democratic. Australia is a regulatory state – one in which three levels of government have wrapped society with a complex and confused mesh of rules and laws which micromanage everything we do.