Scrapping old laws, and making new ones

In March the Federal Parliament will consider a piece of legislation that apparently has the name ‘Omnibus Red Tape Repeal Bill’, plus a couple of other bills which collectively propose removing some 8,000 redundant legislative instruments, some going back to the beginning of Federation. I think it is a great idea,  and hope that it is accompanied by a reluctance of the Abbott Government to add to the statute book itself.

Every year our state and federal governments pass into being thousands of pages of new law. No one at all knows all of it, and most of us only encounter bits of it when we go to do something we haven’t done before and come up against a rule we have never heard of. A great deal of it is irrelevant to almost anyone, but once a law is passed it is the very devil to repeal it. I’m not talking here about the carbon tax, or big issues like that one, but quite small things. Legislation is a giant spiderweb, with each law resting in part on other laws and building on them, in turn becoming a buttress for a later law in another area. Unravelling it all, so that you can get rid of the dross while preserving what might be valuable, is not at all easy.

Governments are happy enough to pass laws, but repealing them is boring, and no one much cheers, though I will. The idea is not new. The US Congress does legislative repeal on a regular basis, and apparently Western Australia has an annual repeal day. My guess is that there will be two sorts of law that will be up for abolition.The first will be those that have no relevance at all to the present, such as (I’m making this one up) laws to do with the passage of bullock drays through central business districts, or laws that refer to an event or date that has long since passed.

The second will be those that are much more controversial — regulations that require businesses, universities and other organisations to comply with this or that, whether or not the law is especially relevant to their operations. Apparently the Government has consulted with very many peak bodies to try to winkle out the regulations that are especially irritating to them. The Labor Opposition will want to defend at least some of these, because they see them as rules to protect the interests of workers.

Some that I would like to see go would be those that require universities to provide data to government that to the best of my knowledge have never been made publicly available, and could not, for the life of me, help in formulating good policy. And once you have to provide data there is always someone in government who wants to see the next year’s data so that they can see the trend, whatever it is. And as a great user of other people’s data, I know how they feel.

H. Allen Smith, an American humorist, wrote a funny book called The Complete Practical Joker (1953) of which I once had a copy. (If a reader has the copy I lent to him or her, would you give it back, please?) In it he relates the story of a bored admin officer in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War, who looked at the fly-papers on the ceiling of the room he was in, and designed a template that purported to collect the number of flies landing on the flypaper on a daily basis, got the Gestetner to make copies, and sent them off to the appropriate military bases. The joke is not in the template, but in the fact that a number of the recipients simply saw it as something else that had to be done, and submitted returns. Laws are like that.

And let us not blame the politicians for all this. At the moment there is a great fuss about ‘alcohol-fuelled violence’ that leads to the king-hit or ‘coward’s punch’, and to real deaths.  There is a lot of public feeling about all this, and both the NSW and the Federal Governments are considering what to do about it. If they act, and finally pass a law of some kind, it will be because we the citizens, helped by television and the newspapers, and the Labor Opposition in New South Wales, have asked for something to be done. When something is done, we will be happier, and put the issue to one side.

It’s not unlike ‘climate change’. Led by activists and politicians who saw a way forward for themselves, we asked for something to be done about anthropogenic global warming, and got a carbon tax. It doesn’t matter, for the activists anyway, that the carbon tax would have had no discernible effect on the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and therefore on average global temperature. The point was that something was done, and we would have to keep doing it.

Do we need a new law to deal with alcohol-fuelled violence? I doubt it. What is needed is some prudence on the part of people who want to go out late at night, some extra policing, a salutary sentence or two, and some sensible behaviour on the part of those who run clubs and hotels. All of this may come anyway, though it won’t bring back the dead, and it won’t be fast enough for those who want to ‘see an end to all this’. But bad laws passed as a knee-jerk reaction to events are not the way to go.

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