When is reducing red tape not reducing red tape? When the phrase is used to support the removal of advocacy capacity within any sector of our community. Peak bodies, government bodies and other regulators and supervisory organisations are critical in protecting the interests of vulnerable people and the wider community.
To remove the advocacy agencies that advise or comment, or to reduce the capacity of peak bodies to advocate, is to materially weaken the democratic process as well as place at risk those vulnerable people.
Additionally, it can place government’s own policy agenda at risk. These advocacy bodies often assist government by providing much-needed information which increases the opportunity for policy realisation.
But government has shown it has a tin ear to those advocating on behalf of people who need our support and, even more dangerously for it, has pursued its ideological objectives even when the evidence is clear that a particular direction is manifestly wrong or it runs counter to other announced policy.
This happened again in March this year when the Senate Committee on Economics Legislation issued a report that supported the government’s intention to decommission the Corporations And Markets Advisory Committee (CAMAC).
CAMAC was set up to advise the Commonwealth government in relation to financial reporting and financial markets. Over recent years the organisation has provided the government and broader community with important, independent advice relating to subjects as diverse as shareholder interests, derivatives trading and managed investment schemes.
All areas where independent, non-finance-industry-sourced advice remains extremely important in ensuring the full analysis of finance markets arrangements are communicated to government by those without an interest in the outcome.
Despite its very modest budget and a number of successes — which have triggered considerable support amongst those with an interest in this area — CAMAC is to be decommissioned. According to the Committee’s majority report, the recommendation was made as a way of cutting costs and reducing red tape.
However, the Senate Committee’s recommendation flies in the face of the almost unanimous tenor of the submissions to the committee which all (save one) supported the retention of what has been a very cheap but very valuable source of credible and, importantly, independent advice for the government.
Perhaps the origin of this antipathy toward CAMAC came out of the CAMAC’s 2013 report into the administration of charitable trusts and its 2014 report into Crowd Sourced Equity Funding. Both reports recommended regulatory frameworks and increased transparency, and it is likely this is advice that the government did not want to hear.
The CAMAC example is not unusual. There are many examples where significant community objections as well as hard evidence have been subordinated to government intentions. The now delayed proposed removal of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), the cuts to Legal Aid programs and the cuts to key peak bodies are all examples where the Commonwealth government has ignored informed opinion and also, somewhat strangely, undermined its own policy objectives.
Most insidiously though, much of this antipathy has been aimed at those organisations that have advocacy responsibilities.
The primary rationale deployed in support of reductions in the advocacy capacity of both government agencies and industry peak bodies has been the perceived need for the reduction of red tape and for the achievement of budget savings. Politically this is an attractive rationale.
However, it is the definition of red tape that becomes critical because one person’s red tape is another person’s protective shield. Government can inadvertently do harm — to itself and to the community — by pursuing budget cuts without balancing the advice being offered with its ideological objectives.
As frustrating as the frequent deployment of the red tape argument is, the assumption amongst ministers seems to have been that those organisations with an advocacy purpose are purely focused on developing arguments aimed at derailing government policy. The fact is, advocacy groups do advocate against some government policy (as you would expect them to do in a democracy), however, they also represent channels for critical feedback to government in the context of the best ways to achieve policy outcomes.
This feedback can assist government in achieving its stated policy intentions. For instance, the government recently announced that it aims to increase work participation rates of people with disability. This is laudable but, at the same time, funding for a number of related and important programs has been cut significantly thus reducing the government’s likelihood of success.
Compared to government agencies and portfolios, advocacy groups often have a broader and fuller understanding of all aspects of a particular problem, are often closely tied into other peak groups and are practised at synthesising complex information from multiple sources and applying the outcomes in the interests of the recipient or their constituents.
The removal of effective information, advisory and advocacy arrangements is not red-tape reduction, but avoidance of alternate opinions. Just because something is uncomfortable for government to hear, doesn’t mean it’s wrong or that advocates are malicious.
The government’s recent back-flips attest to the need for it to listen well and listen early. It doesn’t own all the right answers.