01/10/2009 - 00:00

Nasty paper cuts from two-edged sword

01/10/2009 - 00:00


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Getting the bureaucratic balance right is a challenge for the red tape task force.

THE words 'red tape' elicit fairly predictable responses for most of us who don't have to deal with it every day. To me, red tape means form filling, lining up in queues or listening to automatic telephone operators.
It is mundane and boring.

Until it happens to you, that is; then it is more than frustrating. It sounds like sheer lunacy.

Recently, I had lunch with a few business people as an icebreaker before we did a public panel session. The get-together degenerated into the trading of horror stories.

One, who works in hospitality, explained how many difficulties they had in their food production area, mainly because of the uncompromising attitude of the local council's health inspectors.

It was costly and frustrating, partly because the inspectors didn't know their own pedantic rules and partly because the council system for approvals was so slow. The process was also irrelevant to a business that was clearly on top of its game and trying to expand to capitalise on its success.

"When we took over this building it was not up to health standards," said the owner.

"Over the years we have tried to improve the business and improve the area; all they were doing was slapping wrists and making things difficult for people doing the right thing."

This is the issue with red tape. It tends to be that kind of nanny-state approach that we need to police everyone equally because of the actions of a few people who flout the spirit of the law.

There is also some irony in that red tape also exists not just to regulate business and individuals, but to bind the bureaucracy, which also has people who can't do the right thing. They are the people who bend the rules for mates or take bribes.

Of course, the more red tape there is, the more opportunities exist for those who are corrupt. So red tape is a two-edged sword in that respect.

It is a pity common sense can't prevail. While that may be naive of me, it is worth asking if just layering rule upon rule to control a few rogue elements is really necessary these days?

Do governments need to interfere as much as they do in our lives? Do laws designed to stop poor practices 50 years ago really need to be enforced today?

These are valid questions I think are worth asking, and I am glad the state government is giving due consideration to restricting the flow of new rules, as well as getting rid of unnecessary old ones.

In the course of an interview with Troy Buswell, who is heading the review of red tape, the treasurer passed on a few stories from the task force looking into the issue that I'd share with you.

One example was a winery that had held a producer's licence for 17 years, a period during which it had the same owners, licensees and managers, without incident.

A decision to convert fruit packing sheds into a retail outlet on the property required moving the winery 500 metres down the same road, requiring a slight change of address.

The move proved costly because it required an amended liquor licence, which took more than eight months to obtain at a cost that almost put the business under. According to Mr Buswell's task force, the applicant was required to lodge 168 pieces of documentation with the Department of Racing, Gaming and Liquor, including a 50-page public interest assessment that cost $34,000 to prepare.

Imagine if you or I had to do that every time we moved down the street. The property market would die.
Here's another one.

According to Mr Buswell's red tap task force, under the FuelWatch system major fuel wholesalers are required to display a terminal gate price for each type of fuel sold at their terminals. That is the price paid to fill a tanker (30,000 litres) on the spot.

"One operator noted that there is no evidence of a spot purchase being made at a terminal gate since the requirements were introduced in 2002," read the example provided by the treasurer's office.

Despite this, the red tape task force said one terminal operator was fined $8,000, when a compliance officer visited and could not see a sign that had been placed out of sight.

There were several other examples provided but the best was the school that built a $15,000 disabled toilet. Unfortunately, the distance of the toilet and basin from the wall fell short by 2mm to Education Department requirements and the school was issued with a breach notice.

It is all too easy to shrug off these examples as if they were urban myths spread across the internet. Like the Darwin Awards for people who cause their own ridiculous deaths, these red tape examples are amusing until they happen to you or someone close. Then it's not so funny.

The challenge for government is multi-pronged: to remove outdated and unnecessary rules that pointlessly hinder individuals and businesses; to stop new rules coming into force for no good reason; and, finally, to temper the pedantry that so often accompanies silly laws to create a barrier to sensible decision making.
That last one is being talked about under the theme of cultural change.

That is how any government deals with the way its laws and regulations are administered.

Premier Colin Barnett has made a big deal of getting more independence in the public service, which is a good move. Hopefully that can help at both ends of the spectrum when it comes to administration - corruption and service delivery.

The most high profile part is to ensure that all levels of the bureaucracy are up to the task of administering less onerous laws and regulations without stepping down that slippery slope of corruption.

For all the criticism faced by the Crime and Corruption Commission, it has put on notice those not acting legitimately.

Regrettably, that is a big stick, but even proper functioning bureaucracies need to make sure that being above board is the only acceptable way of doing business.

At the less obvious end of the spectrum is the service delivery element.

Believe it or not, good administration includes being polite, reasonable and understanding when it comes to dealing with the public at any level.

Too many of the anecdotes above involved brutish, uncaring or ignorant attitudes by bureaucrats.

Successful private organisations would not tolerate that kind of behaviour. Governments shouldn't either.


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