Alan Kohler: It’s time for the Labor government to roll out the red tape

There are six fields in which the Labor government needs to roll out the red tape, Alan Kohler writes.

There are six fields in which the Labor government needs to roll out the red tape, Alan Kohler writes.

PM Anthony Albanese and his intrepid band of leftie ministers are soon going to have to start doing something that they appear strangely unenthusiastic about – telling companies what to do.

There are six separate industries or endeavours in which businesses need to be given new rules of the game that they won’t like, and will scream blue murder about over-regulation and red tape – they already are.

These six are: Wage bargaining, carbon emissions, cyber crime, gas, plastic and sugar.

Before we go through them one at a time, we need to ask: What is it with Labor’s reluctance to regulate? I can’t work it out, beyond the fact that laissez-faire capitalism is still the dominant economic paradigm.

It kicked off in 1681 when the French controller-general of the time asked a group of merchants how the state could best promote commerce. “Laissez-nous faire,” he was told, or “leave it to us”.

The idea that the best business regulation was none at all was moved along by, among others, Adam Smith and the “invisible hand” in the 18th century, The Economist magazine and its founder James Wilson, in the 19th century and Ayn Rand in the 20th century.

During the peak age of economic rationalism/neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s, deregulation and “getting rid of red tape” became the maypole around which business people and politicians of all varieties danced together, even including progressives with pictures on their walls of John Curtin, John Maynard Keynes and Franklin D Roosevelt.

And the modern Labor Party still seems to be traumatised by Whitlam, so that successive leaders must demonstrate that they’re not him by deregulating business and denouncing deficits while delivering tax cuts, like their conservative opponents.

Well, the time has come to get out a roll of red tape and do a bit of re-regulating, starting with …

Wage bargaining

This is complex and controversial, and it’s really more about deregulating workers and unions than regulating companies.

workplace law

Employment Minister Tony Burke is pressing on with Labor’s multi-employer bargaining law, but watering it down. Whenever there’s a discussion about this policy that the government took to the election, the spectre of the lawless 1970s is invoked, when there was a nightmare of daily industrial disputes.

Average days lost per 1000 workers during the 1970s was about 550 per year, compared with almost none now. But those 1000 workers worked a total of about 250,000 days a year, so the days lost represented 0.22 per cent.

Nevertheless, it’s true that the strikes were usually inconvenient and/or costly and got a lot of bad press.

But wages kept up with inflation in those days, and in the absence of strikes now, poor wages growth has become an economic problem, acknowledged by all.

In some ways the focus on enterprise bargaining has destroyed the balance of power between labour and capital, since striking against a single company in a competitive industry is hard.

But companies have the – limited – power to sack. To even things up, workers probably need to get back a limited power to strike – against all companies in an industry, not just one.

Carbon emissions

Plenty has been written here about this, and doesn’t need fully rehearsing again, except that in order to play its part in saving the planet, the Labor government needs to tell companies how much greenhouse gas they can emit, and stop mucking around.

Cyber crime

cyber tax crime.

Yes, there need to be stiff fines for companies that don’t protect their customers’ details, as announced, but as the author of The Barefoot Investor, Scott Pape, wrote this week in an open letter to the Minister for Financial Services Stephen Jones, a “lock” also needs to be put on financial information.

That is, lock every credit file so no one can see it without the customer’s consent and ensure that an alert is sent to the customer if someone tries to access the data.

Pape says: “The problem is, putting a lock on our credit files would put a lock on (the credit bureaus’) profits. They’re not going to let it happen, and they pay highly paid lobbyists to make sure the government doesn’t allow it.”

The technology exists, and Pape says the United States has already done it.


The ACCC says Australia faces a shortfall of 56 petajoules of gas next year. It also says the gas exporters have 167 PJ of excess, or uncontracted, gas that they currently sell on the spot market at inflated prices.

That excess gas would cover Australia’s shortfall thrice.

So it’s obvious that the gas exporters need to be told to supply Australia first before exporting uncontracted gas at spot prices.

What’s more, the domestic price should be set by the ACCC on a cost-plus basis, including a reasonable return on capital, rather than at global parity affected by the Ukraine war.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers says they’re working on it, but it’s complicated.

The main complication is that there is excess gas only because Queensland allows onshore fracking while New South Wales and Victoria don’t.

The federal government can’t force fracking in the southern states, so it has no choice but to reserve some of the Queensland gas.

Plastic recycling

Recycling piles up in an Adelaide facility.

The soft plastic recycling scheme run by REDcycle, which involved collecting bags from supermarkets and recycling them, has collapsed because the firms to which REDcycle sold them aren’t taking them anymore, in turn because there’s no market for the resulting pellets.

They can be used for a range of things from road surfacing to benches, but the recycled plastic is an expensive input.

Plastic is both a great benefit of the age of fossil fuels, beloved of manufacturers, packaging companies and consumers, and a curse for the planet. It’s cheap, light and flexible, but doesn’t rot.

The government needs to mandate a percentage of recycled plastic content wherever it can, to prevent the nation being overwhelmed by the stuff.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has announced a “vision” of recycling 100 per cent of plastic waste by 2040, but there was no mention of how.

It won’t happen unless the government mandates a market for recycled plastic through minimum content rules.

They also need to ban mixed packaging, where plastic and paper are combined, because that can’t be recycled.



In Magda Szubanski’s ABC TV show, Big National Health Check, she did a softish interview with Health Minister Mark Butler, but it had a hard edge. Here’s that part of it:

Magda: “Is it possible to actually introduce legislation for mandatory disclosure of the amount of sugar in foods?”
Mark: “I can tell you the food industry strongly resists these changes.”
(End of discussion on that subject)

Magda: “Have you ever considered something like a sugar tax?”
Mark: “No we haven’t looked at that. I know that’s something that over the last couple of years health groups have started to advocate here …”
Magda, interrupting: “A few countries have done it …”
Mark: “The UK probably most notably, given we often compare notes with the British. It’s not something we’re looking at right now.”

Really? You’re not even looking at it? Why on earth not? And why not mandatory disclosure of sugar content?

Minister, for a supposedly progressive government, that’s pathetic.

Alan Kohler writes twice a week for The New Daily. He is also founder of Eureka Report and finance presenter on ABC news

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