From time to time, I have complained about the growing burden of regulatory compliance in Australia. It doesn't do me any good, but I keep complaining. Often, the public discussion focuses on business red tape, but the direct burden on the ordinary Australian citizen is substantial and growing.
Fear of risk is a key driver. Risk must be avoided or at least the burden of risk shifted. The second is often more important. I say this now because I have just come across two further cases in NSW, both involving registration processes.
The first concerns septic tanks. All septic tanks in NSW must now be registered. The reasons for this are explained in this official brochure. It sounds quite reasonable, doesn't it? Overflowing septic tanks may cause problems in, for example, rivers. So people must register them with their local council. Council may charge a fee.
This story from the Armidale Express is an example of what is happening on the ground. The Armidale Dumaresq Council has an estimated 2,200 septic systems in its boundary. Seven hundred people have so far been notified of the requirement, with 1,500 to go. In the adjoining Uralla Shire a similar process is underway for the 1,600 on-site sewerage management systems in that Shire.
Note that the official brochure says that councils may charge a fee for registration. The new registration process is quite costly for councils, so both Armidale and Uralla are charging a $30 fee for registration. That is a cost to residents of $66,000 in the case of Armidale, $48,000 in the case of Uralla Shire.
The story doesn't end there. Councils may inspect registered systems to ensure that they are working properly. For may, read must, If councils do not put an inspection scheme in place and there is some form of incident, that may create a contingent legal liability for council in addition to the owner of the septic system. To avoid this risk, councils will have no choice but to inspect. Uralla Shire has already announced that it will charge $100 for inspections.
There have been cases where imperfect septic systems have created health problems. But, to my knowledge, there has not been a proper cost-benefit analysis of the cost of those problems as compared to the cost of the new regulations.
Swimming pools is my second case study.
In NSW, previous legislative changes require all home swimming pools to be registered with local councils by 29 October 2013. This is the official site for the changes. Look at the photographs of kids who might be saved from drowning. Aren't they cute?
Now there are just a few problems with the changes. One is that the definition of a swimming pool includes any structure, temporary or permanent, with a water depth greater than 30cm. So it covers (among other things) waders put up in the backyard on a hot day. Now these must be registered and comply with all the fencing regulations now mandated for pools. Ugh? It gets worse.
Under the new laws, the owner of the pool must register the pool, but the owner of the property is the one who receives notices and is liable for fines, If you own a house for rent, you are now liable should your tenants fail to register their temporary back-yard wader. Ugh?
What do you do? If you don't already have a pool on your property, you need to amend the conditions of the standard lease so that tenants are banned from doing anything that might breach the new legislation. You don't actually have to enforce it. You just need to shift the liability away from you.
Now in defence of the legislation, surely child deaths in pools are a significant problem, Isn't the NSW Government right to address it? This is where facts come in.
According to NSW statistics, an average of six NSW children die in private swimming pools each year. That's right, six, and the number has been stable for a number of years. Now we have a change that will complicate the lives of all NSW residents and cost millions in compliance cost that, at best, might reduce child mortality by a maximum of six per annum.
I don't think that's very sensible. Do you?