Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald on October 6, 2020

by Ben Oquist
[Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 06 October 2020]

The Treasurer famously declared that ideology was dead when it came to dealing with the COVID-19 crisis and insisted the government was only focused on what works. Unfortunately, for aged care residents, the idea that removing “red tape” is the best way to help people or the economy is an ideology that has not withered.

While debate rages about who is at fault for the fact that aged care residents represent 1 per cent of the population yet account for 68 per cent of Australia’s COVID-19 deaths, no one is arguing it is because of too much regulation. Of course, aged care isn’t the first casualty of an obsession with deregulation. Imagine if the law had stopped Rio Tinto from blowing up 46,000 years of Aboriginal history at the Juukan Gorge. Yet the mantra that Australia needs to reduce red tape rolls on.

On Friday, the Morrison government announced that cuts to red tape across childcare, agriculture, medicine and training will be key to its coming budget strategy. This includes a revved-up proposal from the first year of the Abbott government: turning state governments into a “one-stop shop” for environmental approvals under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. In the name of reducing “bureaucratic duplication”, this change threatens to weaken environmental oversight.

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised the good that government can do to co-ordinate the community, economy and society. As it did in the world wars, the state rose to the occasion at a time of crisis. That’s not to say that government is perfect, that all regulation is good, or no mistakes were made. We must hold Leviathan to account.

But complaints about “red tape” are nothing new. Dickens complained about Britannia being “bound hand and foot with red tape” in 1850 – yet today’s small government advocates hold up 19th century Britain as the exemplar minimal state. There will always be some restrictions to bristle against.

What’s needed in the debate about regulation is nuance. All “regulation” should not be lumped together as “red tape”. Not every requirement is a burden, not all burdens are equally heavy, and not all restrictions come from the government. It’s true that some regulations have outlived their usefulness, and others were never useful at all. But it’s also true that some areas of the economy desperately need more regulation.

Those keen for deregulation could make a start with the punitive restrictions on trade unions, rights-violating laws against secondary boycotts or unjust abortion laws. But when the clothing brand Lorna Jane sells “anti-virus activewear” during a pandemic or a celebrity chef spruiks “recipes to treat COVID-19”, it’s manifestly good that our society has agreed on regulations that forbid this mercenary conduct. These laws, along with those setting minimum standards for aged care homes and limiting pollution, get lumped in as “red tape” – as if protections for the precious things in life are just another species of bureaucratic box-ticking.

Recent polling by the Australia Institute provides a sense of how Australians perceive red tape and regulation, and the results are refreshingly nuanced. Most Australians think there’s more regulation and “red tape” now than there was five years ago. That result may disappoint Ben Morton, the Assistant Minister tasked by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to lead the federal government’s deregulation taskforce. But it does not mean the Australian public is sick of “big government” or “red tape”.

Far from it. After respondents suggested that red tape has increased, they were presented with eight policy issues and asked whether each issue should be more regulated, less regulated, or remain the same. For six of the eight issues, “more regulated” was the most popular choice – and for the remaining two issues, “same level” was the most popular choice.

But people are complex. While on average the results suggest a strong preference for more regulation, when people were asked to consider eight different issues, 82 per cent wanted more regulation in at least one area and 79 per cent wanted at least one area to be less regulated.

The issues we asked about were as varied as gun control, bank fees, gender diversity on boards and live export, yet “less regulation” was the least preferred option for every one of them. And while there was some variation, a majority of supporters of every political party preferred more regulation for something: for Coalition voters, it was gun control; for Labor voters it was pollution; and for One Nation voters it was bank fees and the types of pesticide used for growing food. Greens voters were more likely to support regulation on all four issues.

While it might work for oppositionists to rage against the “nanny state”, what COVID-19 makes clear is that we need our governments to look after our nannies, and our grandfathers too. Regulation no more ruins the economy than rules ruin a game of football. Of course, we should debate which regulations we need and which ones we can do without, but pretending we do not need rules is as dangerous as pretending activewear can protect us from COVID-19.

It is about time to eradicate the ideology and have a sensible debate about which things need more regulation, and which could do with less.

Ben Oquist is the executive director at independent think tank the Australia Institute. @BenOquist

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