Stop the votes

  • Date:01 Oct 2013
  • Type:Company Director Magazine
John M Green believes parliamentarians should stop passing laws they clearly don’t have time to read.

While our new Prime Minister is busy stopping the boats, he should also stop the votes ... or at least slow the tide of votes in parliament that, year on year, are drowning Australia in more laws than anyone can reasonably cope with.

More laws don’t mean effective laws. As long ago as 1991, I advocated (and coined the term) “fuzzy law” to replace the convoluted tangle of laws that was tying decent businesses up in knots, but which spectacularly failed to cut the long string of late-1980s corporate collapses that were confronting our economy.

I suggested that if Moses had bumped into an Australian politician on Mount Sinai instead of God, the prophet would’ve got 1,000 commandments, not 10.

Today, I reflect that I might have been a little harsh on the politician. This is because while the Ten Commandments were pretty good, they didn’t cover everything – for example, drugs and prostitution.

If Moses had got extra commandments to outlaw those two, maybe Essendon wouldn’t have been booted out of this year’s finals and Labor wouldn’t have lost its values, and the election. 

Even so, well-intentioned legislators have been very active across the millennia since the Ten Commandments in improving, extending and refining the law.

So surely, in a sophisticated, mature and already fairly regulated country like ours, most of what we need is already there and we should be able to slow down the pace?

While that might be logical, the numbers I’ll share with you reveal our politicians are doing the precise opposite.*

In the early 1980s, Australia’s combined state and federal governments merrily pumped out around 12,500 pages of new laws a year.

Some 30 years later, their output hasn’t diminished even by a jot. In fact, it has more than doubled, rocketing to almost 30,000 pages a year, virtually every year.

What ordinary citizen, indeed what business – no matter how large – can possibly read, let alone absorb 30,000 pages of new laws a year and be confident of complying with them?

It’s not an idle question. It goes to the root of a free and fair society. As Cicero said two millennia ago: “The more laws, the less justice.”

If you’re finding it hard to comprehend 30,000 pages, given I’m a novelist as well as a company director, I’ll express it as equivalent to creating 100 new novels every year.

In other words, our parliaments are force-feeding us the equivalent of two novels each week. That would be brilliant if they were my novels, but sadly they’re not.

If you stacked one year’s worth of these parliamentary “novels” side by side, they’d stretch wide, filling three long metres of shelf space.

After a few years of this, you’d have to kick your kids out of the home just to make room for all the new laws. Hmm, perhaps this isn’t all bad.

By the way, this annual output of 100 “novels” is only primary legislation, the Acts. Excluded are the forests of regulations and by-laws that go with them.

Of this 30,000 pages across the nation, Canberra has been authoring more than 6,000 of them since the mid-1990s and our last government was approaching 7,000.

Of the 100 legislative “novels” produced each year across the nation, Canberra has been publishing just shy of 25 of them.

But how acceptable is that when, in 2012, the House of Representatives only sat for 17 weeks, meaning each politician had to read, consider and debate around 1.5 “novels” of complex legislation every single sitting week.

If the average reader takes about six hours all up to zip through a page-turner, 1.5 novels would ordinarily clock up nine hours or so – a complete day’s work.

But fiction rarely demands that a reader should digest and weigh every single word, whereas considering a law is absolutely a word-by-word, line-by-line exercise.

So adequately absorbing 1.5 book-lengths of legislation a week should consume way more than a day a week of a politician’s time – probably a multiple of that.

But this simply can’t be happening given the time they keep aside for questioning, posturing and berating each other in the House, as well as tweeting and taking selfies, leaking to journalists, knifing each other in the back and kissing a few babies in shopping malls.

The truth must be that the people we elect to actually pass these laws can’t possibly be reading them, let alone fully understanding them.

Most parliamentarians will skim the department’s explanatory memorandum and chat to an adviser or fellow representative who will point them to the juicy bits.

But, if you’ve ever been involved in litigation, the court will look first to the precise words of the law, not to the departmental summary or an adviser’s interpretation.

Dear honourable members, if you don’t have the time to read and fully understand a proposed law yourself, please don’t let parliament pass it until you do.

Dear Prime Minister, please stop the votes.

*Legislative page numbers are from “Australia’s Big Government, by the Numbers” by Dr Julie Novak, with some data from Chris Berg and Stephen Kirchner (Institute of Public Affairs, May 2013).