Monday, November 11, 2013

Parkinson's law of government and associated matters part 1

This morning the first of a two part round up of some of the events of the last week.

Refugee Policy

The now famous "press conference" with Australian Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison with Operation Sovereign Borders Commander, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, was just plain embarrassing. I felt sorry for General Campbell. He didn't handle it well, but that's not his job. After the first question, he should have flicked it to the Minister since his inability to comment was set by political bounds.

Media resentment over the Sovereign Borders press rules has been growing for some time. Now the Abbott Government's attempts at media management have turned into the Government's first media disaster, with the media pack in full pursuit. Who would have thought that Indonesian sources including the Jakarta Post would become such an important source for domestic Australian news? If you want to control reporting, best make sure that you can actually control it! 

Meantime, the combination of refugee policy with the espionage dispute has made Canberra's relations with Djakarta somewhat fractious.

Lake Jabs

In response to my Lake Jabs post, inveterate fellow researcher kvd came up with a source for daily weather forecasts on the Antarctic lake. It appears that the weather is dry but cold. Digging further, kvd provided further proof for the accuracy of Godwin's Law. This states that  as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

In kvd's case, it took him two comments. The trigger was USN Operation Highjump (1946-47) during which Lake Jabs was photographed for the first time. What I didn't know nor, I suspect kavd, was the mythology that grew up round this expedition. Did US Navy battle UFOs protecting Nazi Antarctic sanctuary in 1947? is an example.

ACT BBQs and Parkinson's Law of Government

Cyril_Northcote_Parkinson_1961 British naval historian C Northcote Parkinson articulated a number of useful laws. His best known, Parkinson's Law, is that work expands to fill the time available. Parkinson's law of boards states that boards will focus on things that they can understand regardless of important. To illustrate he compares discussion on a bike shed with a nuclear reactor. Parkinson's law of organisations suggests that organisations who build monuments are always past their peak. he gives the Roman Catholic Church and British navy as examples. 

I would offer a variant of Parkinson's Law. As the power of governments declines, they spend more time attempting to control and regulate the things that they think they can or, more often, the things that people think that they can. More and more this limits government to what we might call the social domain.  

Most time the citizenry just rolls over, it's all too hard. People cope as best they can by selectively deciding what to ignore, what to comply with, recognising that the volume of law and regulation has reached the point that no-one can actually comprehend the full range.  

Sometimes Government actions are just so silly people actually react. The ACT BBQ laws are a case in point. These articles from the Canberra Times will give you a feel:

I will leave you to read the stories to get a full feel, but this quote from the Canberra Times editorial will give you a feel:

TONGS will be quivering across the territory this weekend with news that the ACT government is involving itself in the barbecue business.

More specifically, the government has introduced regulations requiring those making money from regular barbecues to engage food safety officers and pay up to hundreds of dollars to train them before they are allowed to oversee the darkening of the first snag.

This became a bridge too far for it directly attacked all the voluntary groups from school P&Cs to Rotary Clubs making money from community BBQs. Now the ACT Government is engaged in a hasty backtrack.

Parkinson's Law of Government and the Abbott Administration

The still new Abbott Government has also been wrestling with Parkinson's Law of Government. Here I quote:

The Government is determined to deliver on its election commitment to reduce the cost of unnecessary and inefficient regulation on business and the community by at least $1 billion each year, every year.

Regulation won’t be the default position for government and will only be imposed where unavoidable.

Cabinet submissions will henceforth require regulatory impact statements that quantify the compliance costs imposed and matching compliance cost cuts where regulation is unavoidable.

Excessive, unnecessary regulation stifles productivity, investment and job creation and saps business confidence.

Over the last six years, more than 21,000 additional regulations were introduced, productivity declined and Australia fell in the global competitiveness rankings. There are currently more than 50,000 Acts and legislative instruments, many of which are a handbrake on Australia’s ability to get things done.

The Government’s new approach recognises that regulation has a cost. Responsibility for the deregulation agenda now sits with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to ensure there is a whole-of-government approach to this critical issue.

To further streamline government and reduce duplication, the Government will also abolish or rationalise 21 non-statutory bodies where activities are no longer needed or can be managed within existing departmental resources.

The abolition or merging of a number of advisory bodies at the one time has the advantage that it blunts the capacity of the supporters of any single body to mount a counter-attack. It is also cosmetically useful is in demonstrating action when more substantive action depends upon future work.

Something similar applies to the Treasurer's announcement that action was being taken on no less than 96 previously announced taxation measures that had yet to be legislated. I have given the link so that you can look at the initial detail provided. Some will proceed, some are cancelled, others are subject to further review.

In the tax case, some of the measures are minor, but others are substantive. We need to see more detail before making final judgements.

More broadly, to a degree at least, the Government appears to be attempting to use regulation to control regulation.  The requirement that cabinet submissions will henceforth need regulatory impact statements that quantify the compliance costs imposed falls in this case. As an aside, I don't understand the second part of this sentence: "and matching compliance cost cuts where regulation is unavoidable"; am I just tired?; perhaps someone can explain. It seems to mean that you can add a new compliance cost so long as you have an offsetting saving elswhere. 

I have long argued that proposals involving new regulations should be subject to some form of cost benefit analysis; Septic tanks, swimming pools and the burden of compliance is a recent repetition of a now well worn theme. In the end, action to reduce regulation and the associated compliance burden depends upon attitudes, not rules. Ministers and departments are the starting point in deciding what not to bring forward.

I may be wrong, but I think that the Abbott Government is too authoritarian, too deeply enmeshed in the current rules, risk and measurement based political and managerial climate, to do more than remove or amend rules in those areas where it has the strongest ideological stance in favour of reduction.

Tomorrow, among other things, budgets, bludgeons and a bit on the Australian male. 



Anonymous said...

The more laws and restrictions there are,
The poorer people become.
The sharper men's weapons,
The more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are,
The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations,
The more thieves and robbers.

(you can blame Denis Wright for my revisiting of the Tao te Ching - a.k.a. Parkinson's Law of Government)


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. I do blame Denis, but in a most positive fashion!