Tuesday, 1 December 2015
Treasury Legislation Amendment (Repeal Day 2015) Bill 2015; Second Reading
The Treasury Legislation Amendment (Repeal Day 2015) Bill 2015 is particularly important legislation because it really goes to the heart of what government is about. What government is about is legislating where required but only where required, and never for the sake of legislation for its own sake or for government to seek to impose itself unnecessarily upon the people. We have a very clear view on this: only pass that legislation which is genuinely required, and if there is legislation on the books which is unproductive and which serves no purpose—which indeed in many cases is counterproductive—then get rid of it. Why would we want bad laws hanging around on the statute books?
It is interesting to contrast our approach on this with that of those opposite. There are some quite interesting statements on this issue of the volume of legislation and so on made by those opposite when they were in the previous government. It is almost as if those opposite think that legislating is a task of quantity, not quality—that, if you weigh the pages on the scales and there are plenty of laws, lots of schedules and regulations and so on, that means government is functioning effectively. That is absolutely not the case.
It was in fact the member for Grayndler who excitedly declared in the last parliament, 'We've now passed 307 pieces of legislation through the House of Representatives.' There was no reference to the specific quality of that legislation or, indeed, what the legislation was. It was: 'There's a whole lot of legislation, and surely that must be a good thing.' His colleague and my neighbour, the member for Blaxland, in a similar vein, was very excited by the volume of legislation that had been passed by the parliament then, and he said, 'Despite all the negativity, this parliament has passed 482 pieces of legislation,' again as if in and of itself this was a good thing, and we know that is not the case.
In that six-year Labor government era, there were a litany of failures, some through managerial incompetence and some the direct consequence of legislation. But there was a lot of legislation. There were 975 acts and 39,000 pages of legislation during that period. That is a huge amount of legislation. But, again, you cannot just weigh it and say, 'There's a lot of legislation, so things are good.' You have to focus very much on the need for that legislation to be passed before doing so.
It is good to have the opportunity to reflect on this topic of red-tape reduction, which has some very small instances of application and some very big ones too. Much of the economic development of Australia and the rest of the Western world in recent decades could be put down, broadly, to the concept of red-tape reduction, because there was a massive amount of red tape imposed on economies, particularly around the middle of the 20th century, and the task of good governments in recent decades has often been simply to get rid of that bad legislation and those bad structures. We should give credit to the Hawke-Keating government, which did make some quite significant changes to the Australian economy and did get rid of quite a bit of red tape that was holding us back. We should celebrate that success and we should ask those opposite to rise to the challenge that their predecessors set for them. Hopefully, they will.
To me, one of the great examples of red-tape reduction and deregulation is free trade because, when you think about it, free trade basically involves the undoing of bad laws passed by governments over generations. The entire process of free trade is about undoing previous laws that imposed artificial barriers that increased costs for consumers and made economies poorer than they would otherwise have been. But for governments of all persuasions and, indeed, in many countries who passed laws for tariff and other forms of protection, particularly in the 20th century, we would not have to go through rounds of free trade negotiations—and our remarkable trade minister would be somewhat less busily employed than he is! But that is required, because we have to get rid of the barriers to trade which have hurt our world so much.
This government has had tremendous success in that area, having closed free trade deals with Japan and South Korea; being a party recently to the Trans-Pacific Partnership; and, perhaps most remarkably, having closed a free trade agreement with China, which will have a very positive impact on Australia for generations to come. That is an act of deregulation right there, because it is taking away artificial barriers and artificial regulations which governments have imposed in the past. That is an extremely important example.
Another example in recent times of red tape, of excessive regulation, that had to be removed for the benefit of the economy is in fact the action that the previous, Labor government took in floating the Australian dollar and having a flexible exchange rate. Fixed exchange rates are basically governments saying, 'We know better; we know how much our dollar's worth and we're going to do a whole lot of artificial things to get that outcome. Even if common sense says it's wrong and even if markets say that valuation is wrong, we're going to do it anyway.' When as a government you involve yourself in such activities, there are lots of negative consequences as a result, because a floating exchange rate is basically a teller of the truth. It is not what you might want it to be worth. It is not what you might decide in a committee meeting it is worth. It is what it is actually worth. And ensuring that an exchange rate adjusts to reflect the reality of what is happening in a particular economy is an important shock absorber. So that was a really important act of deregulation.
Another important area of deregulation, where red tape gets in the way, is where governments are involved in commercial type activities in the government sector, because government entities have different motivations from commercial entities; they also, frankly, have unfair advantages over commercial entities with whom they compete. History shows us very clearly that it does not make sense for governments to participate in the commercial world and that they should seek to get out of those activities wherever they can sensibly do so
This government has done that through the privatisation of Medibank Private, amongst other activities, and that is absolutely appropriate because there is an inherent conflict in government entities competing with commercial ones. There is a practical example that we see from time to time in the media industry, where the ABC, which does a great job in many respects, is effectively competing with commercial entities providing similar services to the same markets—same time, same place. That creates complexities and significant problems in the commercial media sector. We need to be conscious of making sure that government entities act where they should and not where they should not. One of the places where they should be very hesitant to act is anything which is, in any way, commercial. The good news is, under successive governments over a number of decades, that is the direction in which this nation has been moving, and that has been good for productivity, economic growth and jobs.
They are some of the broader areas of deregulation and red-tape reduction, but we should turn to some of the specific provisions of today's legislation, which has been introduced by the Assistant Minister for Productivity, standing in the shoes, as he now does, of those who went before him: the Minister for Resources, Energy and Northern Australia, and the Minister for Social Services.
One of the first important changes relates to the superannuation guarantee charge. This is a longstanding provision that basically charges a penalty fee on employers who are, perhaps, somewhat slow in making superannuation payments. This was an important piece of legislation back when the superannuation system was first introduced, but, as we have become more cognisant of the importance of superannuation, as this area has become just part of daily life in Australia, these provisions are largely redundant. They tend to overly penalise honest mistakes. The key point is that the employee must be paid, and, as long as that occurs, it is sensible to not take an overly punitive approach in administering this area of the law. That is what this bill will do. It will make the superannuation guarantee charge more proportionate to the noncompliance by aligning the interest component that is paid with the relevant period for which contributions were not paid. Currently, it is a more punitive definition. So that is an important change that is part of today's red-tape repeal bill.
Another area which the assistant minister and others have commented on in recent weeks is the important change about lost and unclaimed superannuation, especially as it pertains to people with a terminal medical condition. In the very sad situation where someone has a terminal medical condition, it is really important that their assets can be transferred for their direct use as soon as possible so as to assist with their care and all of the other expenses that they or their family may incur. Prior to this legislation coming before the House, it was necessary for there to be a step where the ATO-administered amounts were paid directly to a super fund and then the super fund itself had to make arrangements to pay the individual the amount of money. As you can imagine, that could take some time and could cause delays and, frankly, a lot of unhelpful frustration in what is a very difficult time for the person involved. So these changes will mean there will be no need for those funds to go to the superannuation fund in the first instance. They can go directly to the person who is terminally ill, and that is a really important and common-sense change.
Schedule 3 of the bill will also make some changes to the description of a company as being in receivership. For various technical reasons that I will not go into great detail about, there are currently situations where a corporation is required to use the notification in receivership in a broad sense, even when the assets or activities in receivership may, in fact, be a minute proportion of their activities. This bill will fix that particular problem.
We are about removing unnecessary regulation, focusing on common sense and, above all, not valuing legislation by its volume but by its quality. That is what government is about.