Flat White

Regulating away freedoms

10 October 2017

5:13 PM

10 October 2017

5:13 PM

One of the paradoxes in the world today is that day-to-day life in a communist country like China is much freer than here in Australia.

I’m not thinking of lofty freedoms to criticise your government or stand for public office. I mean freedom in everyday activities -recreation, family and business.

When I travelled around China a few years ago I met up with some people at a hostel in Xi’an, home to the Terracotta Warriors. After a few beers together and chats about our travels, we decided at about 2.00 am to venture out for some noodles. We rode our bikes (without helmets), came across a food stall on a street corner and there we sat on a warm night eating noodles, drinking a beer and chatting to the stall owner in broken Mandarin. One of my new friends lit up a cigarette.

I remember thinking at the time that almost every aspect of this scene would be illegal in Australia.

Bike riding without helmets and smoking in a dining area are illegal in all Australian states. There would be very little chance that health and safety laws would allow a street food stall like this one and certainly not to sell beer – if it was New South Wales, it would already be past the government mandated bedtime. And anyway, Australia’s penalty rates regime means very few food stalls could afford to stay open so late: the staff wages would be too prohibitive.

Now, there can be an argument over individual rules in a situation like this. I’m not saying we revamp our food safety rules to mirror China’s. But was any of what we were doing so dangerous as to be banned? Were we really causing such harm, to ourselves or others, that all of it should have been illegal?

It’s a similar story wherever you go. Even Germany, typically thought of as a rule-abiding society, is far freer than ours. Indeed, this sense of freedom is one of the things that Australians enjoy most about travelling and explains some of the appeal of destinations like Greece, Thailand and Bali.


I think everyone has an anecdote in this country where, to their surprise, they’ve been told: “You can’t do that”. The most recent one I heard was from my uncle, who wanted to install new Venetian blinds at his house with a short curtain cord, but was told, “You can’t do that”. The risk of strangulation was so great, even for my uncle who lives without children, that these were illegal.

Most of these anecdotes would almost certainly belong to business people. In China, if someone wants to start a business, then it’s simple – you start it. You buy your stock, build your website, find customers – in other words, you start doing. In Australia, starting a business is a matter of swimming through a sea of regulation. The first step is learning the rules imposed by each tier of government and filling out the necessary paperwork. Basically, you start by complying.

There are countless examples. A café serving wine with outdoor seating could easily be required to apply for up to thirty different permits – planning rules, labour rules, liquor permits and health and safety rules. A hairdresser in New South Wales first has to receive a government hairdressing licence, presumably to protect citizens from bad haircuts. In some Melbourne suburbs, you cannot run a fitness or running class at your local park without first receiving a permit from the local government. Many labourers, such as house painters, first need to receive a trade licence from the government before they can find work.

Most of this regulation is pointless, achieving very little in terms of public policy, while annoying people with firms and paperwork. Worse than this, however, is how it acts as a brake on economic activity. It hinders, and sometimes completely stops, law-abiding and hardworking people from starting businesses or new jobs. Imagine a young migrant to Sydney, a successful hairdresser in his home country. Why shouldn’t he be able to go to his local salon and apply for a job? If the owner thinks he’s up to the job, he will hire him and allow him to work. If not, he simply won’t get the job. That’s how a market economy is supposed to operate, by trusting people, not governments, to make the most efficient decisions. In reality, the hairdresser will probably just start working without the permit, creating a situation where only some comply with the law and others do not – the consequence of such pointless regulation.

Imagine a young migrant to Sydney, a successful hairdresser in his home country. Why shouldn’t he be able to go to his local salon and apply for a job? If the owner thinks he’s up to the job, he will hire him and allow him to work. If not, he simply won’t get the job. That’s how a market economy is supposed to operate, by trusting people, not governments, to make the most efficient decisions. In reality, the hairdresser will probably just start working without the permit, creating a situation where only some comply with the law and others do not – the consequence of such pointless regulation.

Australian governments obviously see themselves as having a role in stepping into all areas of activity to regulate and protect citizens from harm, not trusting citizens to look after themselves.

The worst example of this kind of meddling is the “working with vulnerable people check” administered by the Tasmanian and ACT governments. This requires people to obtain a licence if they wish to engage in “regulated activities” with people the government deems to be vulnerable. The definition of “vulnerable” is cast so broadly (it includes anyone with some kind of disadvantage) that it effectively means that you need a government-issued card for the most basic social and community activities, whether volunteering at your sporting club, working with a church group or helping out at a community group. It is incredible to think that an Australian government has so little trust in its citizens that it sees its role to step in and

The definition of “vulnerable” is cast so broadly (it includes anyone with some kind of disadvantage) that it effectively means that you need a government-issued card for the most basic social and community activities, whether volunteering at your sporting club, working with a church group or helping out at a community group. It is incredible to think that an Australian government has so little trust in its citizens that it sees its role to step in and background check anyone wishing to work with a “vulnerable person”.

I have only talked about government regulation so far, but the zeal for red tape and regulation seems to be infectious. Nowadays, it is common for apartment buildings to issue edicts that restrict residents’ rights. Many apartment owners are not allowed to own pets, move their furniture except during prescribed hours, hang washing on their balconies or place doormats in front of their door because it causes a tripping hazard. At the workplace, overzealous health and safety officers throw away toasters (burning hazard), ban nuts and seeds in the kitchen (allergy hazard) and make people walk down 20 flights of stairs for the twice-yearly fire drill.

No longer should we say that these rules are just a frustrating part of life. It is time to demand that we roll back those pointless rules that do more harm than good. For every new regulation or red-tape restriction, we need to apply this test: what problem are we solving and is this really the most efficient way to solve it? In many cases, the regulation will fail at the first hurdle – after all, is there really a problem of rogue hairdressers in NSW?

Freedom should be a paramount consideration, and not just an afterthought as currently seems to be the case for so many decision-makers in this country.

Paul Tamburro is a Melbourne lawyer.

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