Scott Morrison is casting himself as the “can-do” prime minister, and what’s notable is how he is forging institutions around his style.
The national cabinet was born of the COVID crisis, but has been made permanent with a broader purpose; Morrison is determined it will have less bureaucracy than surrounded the former Council of Australian Governments (COAG).
Now he has flagged the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission will have an “onward life” and “translate into a new mode soon” with “a few more voices” added (likely to include those from small business and agriculture).
The commission was set up to liaise with business on immediate problems created by the pandemic and had been due to finish in September. Ahead of its further blossoming, it has already branched into a much wider advisory and ideas-generating role.
It suits the approach of Morrison, who dislikes the conventional bureaucracy, with (what he would see as) its tiresome preoccupation with “process”. It fits neatly with his idea that “there is a time for having the discussion and then we will make a decision and then we’ll get on with it”.
On Monday Morrison, speaking to CEDA, also announced he was bringing the deregulation taskforce from within treasury into his department of prime minister and cabinet, where it will “zero in on areas to assist COVID-19 economic recovery”.
He described the move “as part of the government’s JobMaker agenda”; it would “further drive a whole-of-government approach to how regulatory policy is prosecuted”.
Morrison’s drive for deregulation is much more ambitious than just accelerating approval processes for infrastructure and other business projects.
Crucially, it is aimed at a general change in attitudes.
“Our focus applies as much to the culture of regulators as it does to the content of regulations,” he said. “I’m sure anyone in business would understand that point. This crisis has shown what can be achieved when regulators are pragmatic and responsive, solving problems without compromising safeguards.”
He lauded “APRA [Australian Prudential Regulation Authority] in particular working with the major banks, to ensure that we could be dealing with deferral of loan payments … just working constructively together to solve quite a serious problem that was going to have a significant impact on whether businesses could keep their doors open. The attitude of the regulator mattered as much as the regulations themselves.”
Morrison said he had asked his assistant minister Ben Morton to report back on “‘lessons learned’ in recent months, highlighting cases where governments and regulators have responded to the COVID crisis and its economic fall-out with urgency and common-sense”.
He noted diverse “encouraging examples”. In health alone, these included ensuring “unnecessary professional requirements” did not block nurses returning to the workforce, fast-tracking approvals for drug trials, making changes to promote the use of telehealth, and cutting red tape to allow companies to use overseas standards for hand sanitiser.
“And we reduced financial reporting and other requirements that would have hit firms struggling to survive the shock … businesses are able to sign documents with electronic signatures and conduct virtual AGMs”.
The mention of APRA triggered a memory.
Could it have been just short of a year ago that a government-commissioned report criticised APRA for its “strong preference to do things behind the scenes with regulated entities”? The review had come out of the royal commission into banking, which produced some horrific stories resulting from financial institutions’ bad behaviour, which had gone unchecked by regulators.
Commenting at the time on the report into APRA Allan Fels, a former head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, said APRA had in the past been too cosy with the institutions it regulated.
APRA has lifted its game, but what happened before is a salutary reminder of the danger of too slack a “culture”.
None of this is to suggest the short cuts during COVID aren’t desirable. Or to argue regulations of all sorts should not be examined and where necessary overhauled or scrapped.
And to be fair, Morrison did talk about “solving problems without compromising safeguards”.
But his main message is about regulatory excess.
It is worth remembering that when it comes to regulations, one person’s frustrating road block is another’s useful amber light.
Writing for The Conversation, Martin Loosemore, Professor of Construction Management at the University of Technology in Sydney, has pointed out how in the residential apartment sector “poor-quality buildings have devastated people’s lives”.
It’s great we could fast track nurses into work and speed drug trials during COVID, but for the longer term let’s be sure that various regulations were not written for sound purposes. Some will have been; some won’t. Crisis times and normal times may require different balances between expediency and risk.
If the government misjudges when it takes the scissors to the red tape, it or a successor government will almost inevitably find itself being called on to string up new tape.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra