Tuesday, 1 December 2015
Omnibus Repeal Day (Spring 2015) Bill 2015, Amending Acts 1990 to 1999 Repeal Bill 2015, Statute Law Revision Bill (No. 3) 2015; Second Reading
While some modifications were incorporated into relevant Commonwealth acts at the time, some were not. The amendments in this bill are intended to make the remaining modifications to fully ensure that Commonwealth laws are applied in an appropriate manner to the Australian Capital Territory following the Australian Capital Territory's move to self-government, which occurred, of course, in 1988.
While, for the most part, the measures in this bill are not contentious—and I have been describing what is, in truth, the very minor nature of most of the measures that are dealt with in this bill—I do have to indicate to the House that Labor also has some concerns about some of the measures that are contained in this bill. In particular, we have some concerns with the measure in the Communications portfolio that would remove consultation requirements for the Australian Communications and Media Authority. In the Agriculture portfolio there are some concerns with the move to abolish the National Rural Advisory Council. I understand that the shadow minister for agriculture will have something to say about this later in the debate. And in the Environment portfolio, Labor has some concerns with some of the proposed amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, particularly the amendments relating to assessment documentation and requirements to publish particular decisions.
Since being passed by the Howard government 15 years ago, the EPBC Act has been the overriding national environmental protection law, and since being elected this coalition government has made numerous attempts to weaken the EPBC Act. Right now there is before the parliament another bill which is seeking to repeal the general standing requirements that have been part of this act—the EPBC Act—since it was enacted by the Howard government. It is an absolutely retrograde measure. It demonstrates that the coalition government is not to be trusted on any matter to do with the environment—and particularly, it is not to be trusted on any matter to do with environmental protection. This is why Labor express concern, and we would express concerns about anything this coalition government was attempting to do to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. While we will always support common-sense improvements to our environmental regulatory system, such as the streamlining of assessment processes and the removal of errors and elements that might lead to unintended impacts, what we will not do is support the weakening of environmental protections. Nor will we support reducing transparency and, in particular, as I have just mentioned, we will not be supporting any limitations on the right of the Australian community to challenge government environmental decisions.
As a consequence of the concerns that I have just outlined in relation to the measure in the Communications portfolio, the move in the Agriculture portfolio to abolish the National Rural Advisory Council and the proposed amendments to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, Labor will be referring the omnibus repeal bill to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee for hearings, an inquiry and a report to enable a working through of the issues and concerns that we have.
I turn to the second of the three bills that are before the House, the second of those bills being the Amending Acts 1990 to 1999 Repeal Bill. In this bill there is the repeal of 877 acts of parliament. Consistent with the trumpeting and the braggadocio of the former Prime Minister's repeal day extravaganza, which is now being continued with this amending acts repeal bill, this is the fourth and latest instalment of this kind of act that repeals old pieces of legislation. This latest instalment builds on the first bill, which repealed legislation from 1901 to 1969; the second bill, which repealed amending acts passed between 1970 and 1979; and the third bill, which repealed amending acts passed between 1980 and 1989. In this bill we come to the repeal of Howard government legislation in the latter part, being amending acts passed between 1996 and 1999. In total, including this fourth bill, this series of amending acts repeal bills would repeal a total of 3,523 acts of the Australian parliament. It might seem a marvellously impressive measure in itself, but you have to look at what these acts actually are, and I cannot believe that the government is persisting with this pretence that it is engaging in real legislative activity.
These acts are amendment acts. I have said this about every one of these bills that have come before the parliament: once the amendment to the principle act occurs, the amendment act has done its job and it ceases to have effect. In many of cases of the amending acts that are here being repealed, the principle acts themselves have already been repealed. To give a couple of examples: in the latest amending act bill, there is the repeal of the Overseas Students Charge Amendment Act 1989, which amended the Overseas Students Charge Act 1979. The principle act has already been repealed. It was repealed in 1999. Another example is the repeal of the Poultry Industry Assistance Amendment Act 1992, which amended the Poultry Industry Assistance Act 1965. Again, the principle act has already been repealed. It was repealed in 1996.
The explanatory memorandum to this bill, like the previous three amending acts repeal bills that we have been forced to deal with, states:
In all cases, the repeal of the Acts will not substantially alter existing arrangements or make any change to the substance of the law.
It actually makes no change to the substance of the law. The Acts Interpretation Act makes it absolutely crystal clear that as soon as the amending act does its work—that is, on proclamation—and it changes the wording of the act that it is amending, that is it. It ceases to have effect. It is a dead letter. So what we are again engaged with—and we are now up to this mighty number of 3,523 amending acts that are to be repealed—is the repeal of dead letters.
If it were suggested that somehow they are being made to completely disappear, that is not right either. Even after these acts have been repealed, they will remain available anyway on digital databases like ComLaw as public records. So we are being asked to engage in a legislative act which has no legal effect whatsoever. Well you might ask: why has the government wasted the time of the parliament with this nonsense of an activity? It was so that the former Prime Minister could say on the first repeal day, ridiculously, that they were going to repeal 1,000 acts of parliament. In order to get to that, they could not actually find 1,000 acts of parliament that could usefully be repealed, so they found amending acts that had ceased to have effect but were actually still listed in the government's statute book and said, 'We'll repeal them.' What an absurd activity. What a waste of this parliament's time, just for show for the former Prime Minister. But, regrettably, the government—because it is the same government—is continuing with this charade of an exercise.
The government has claimed that some $600,000 in deregulatory savings are to be attributed to these repeals. I would suggest that that is a laughably inflated figure. It is not actually possible to discern how there could be any saving from repealing something from the Australian statute book that has not had effect for many years. And, I say again, it was solely to pamper the ego of the former Prime Minister, but apparently there is still someone left in this government who thinks this is an exercise worth engaging in.
The third bill is the Statute Law Revision Bill (No. 3) 2015. This bill is the government's latest round in its war on punctuation—again, bundling up statute law revision bills that have been part of the ordinary work of this parliament since the 1930s. In most years since the 1930s this parliament has passed a statute law revision bill that tidies up the statute book—corrects punctuation and removes spelling mistakes, removes unnecessary headings and does a range of other things. In most years we have seen a bill such as this, just like the House of Commons in the United Kingdom has passed a statute law revision bill since around the 1860s. It is part of the ordinary work of a parliament. Of course it is something we should do. I congratulate, as I have every time a state law revision bill has come before this parliament, the Office of Parliamentary Counsel for the excellent work it does in making sure our statute books read as well as they might by tidying up these kinds of errors. But this kind of bill should not be dressed up as part of some mighty war on red tape that this government pretends it is engaged in.
We have seen in some of these previous statute law revision bills that the government insists on bundling up with its repeal day exercises what the government has gotten up to previously—changing 'e-mail' to 'email' and changing 'facsimile' to 'fax'—
Dr Leigh interjecting—
You can just imagine, as the member for Fraser interjects, the immense boost to productivity that is going to be occurring because of this correction of spelling. We have seen the removal of 40 hyphens, two commas and one inverted comma and changing two full stops to semicolons and one semicolon to a full stop, and inserting one full stop, one colon, one hyphen and one comma. In this bill, disappointingly, there is only one comma inserted.
This bill makes a series of technical amendments and corrections which, like all the previous statute law revision bills that have been introduced as part of these repeal days, do not make any change to the substance of the law, according to the explanatory memorandum to the bill. There are cross-referencing fixes, removals of redundant definitions, and spelling changes—all important and necessary to do, but very, very routine, which is why I congratulate the Office of Parliamentary Counsel for the excellent work it does. It is a bit thankless. It is tedious work. But it does need to be done. But let's not inflate it to having a significance that it does not bear.
Across 140 pieces of legislation, there is the bulk change from 'is guilty of' to 'commits', which, according to the explanatory memorandum, is being done to modernise language in line with current drafting practice. And across 52 pieces of legislation there are other changes to similar phrases that essentially replace 'guilty' with commit'. Also, in 12 locations across eight pieces of legislation there is a change from 'reference base' to 'index reference period'. I am sure the member for Fraser would understand what that means, but I would have to go and look it up. This appears to be a continuation from a very similar set of amendments that was contained in a previous statute law revision bill—and, again, being done to modernise language in accordance with current drafting practice. There is also the repeal of five sections and one clause across five pieces of legislation due to these provisions being spent and redundant—important housekeeping, yes, but far from real regulatory reform.
The government has attributed $50,000 in deregulatory savings to this bill. It is the lowest amount of deregulatory savings that the government has attributed to any of the statute law revision bills to date. And I would be intrigued to see how even that sum has been calculated. These repeal day bills have been very far from the mark when it comes to the government's deregulatory agenda. When Labor was in government, as a matter of the ordinary work of every Commonwealth government we repealed over 16,000 acts and legislative instruments—16,794, to be precise—and achieved cuts in costs to business of $4 billion a year through the Seamless National Economy reforms. It was done without too much noise or fanfare, because it is not something that should be accompanied by too much noise or fanfare. Every modern government in every developed economy understands that unnecessary regulation is to be avoided. Everybody, all governments, understand the importance of removing unnecessary regulatory burdens. But of course to simply condemn all regulation—or what appears to be the starting point of this government all too often, which is one of condemning all regulation—entirely misses the point. Governments exist in order to serve their communities in part by making laws, in part by passing regulations, because one of the ways in which governments exercise power on behalf of the communities they govern is by passing laws and making regulations.
So, in every case, it is not simply a matter of saying, 'We're sweeping away that regulation', and that must by definition be a good thing. In every case it is necessary to examine what the purpose of the regulation or legislation was when it was introduced, whether that purpose is still needed and what the effect will be of repealing this legislation and these regulations that are being held up for examination or suggested for being repealed.
Earlier in this speech I gave some egregious examples of some of the things this government has tried to do under the guise of red tape removal. Chief among them was the cutting of cleaners' pay—a startling thing for the government to do—which was achieved through the abolition of the Commonwealth Cleaning Services Guidelines. Its effect was to cut cleaners' pay, despite the former Prime Minister asserting the opposite in parliament. It was a shameful thing to have done, but it is a very good example of why we should always closely examine the things that this government puts forward as a supposedly beneficial elimination of red tape to make sure that they are not trying, with their sweeping repeals, to sneak through something that is useful to the community and serves the community well.
These repeal days—and we are now enduring the fourth group of bills—are really nothing more than what should be treated as the ordinary routine business of government. Let's hope that we have seen an end to the trumpeting and boasting associated with an ordinary activity of government.