Laws and disorder: The wisdom of Clive Palmer

With 30,000 pages of new laws printed each year, it's no wonder Clive Palmer is worried about the consequences of not doing his required reading.

The maybe-elected, maybe-professor Clive Palmer says that unless the new independents get additional resources, Parliament might only be able to pass one bill a year. Palmer is not shooting from his ample hips on this; he is making a sound point of fundamentally Titanic proportions.

At the root of this is a simple truth: our parliaments are drowning Australia in more laws than anyone can reasonably cope with. Even Mr, er, Professor Palmer, who generally seems to cope with laws better than most.

Perhaps while our new prime minister is busy stopping the boats, he could also stop the votes … or at least slow the tide of votes in Parliament that, year on year, are passing all these laws.

Every time we have a corporate collapse or some other crisis, the knee-jerk call is for more laws. Politicians do that so they can preen themselves as ‘doers’, prepared to act and help the little guy. Even if the existing law might already help the little guy. But why bother enforcing it – that takes time and money – when instead you can make harrumphing speeches and look heroic.

If Moses had bumped into an Aussie pollie on Mount Sinai instead of God, the prophet would’ve got 1,000 Commandments, not 10 and, while he was walking down the mountain with the tablets on his back, the pollie would be throwing another few hundred at him, just in case the first lot weren’t tough enough.

For sure, God should have given Moses more than ten. The Ten Commandments were pretty good, but they didn’t cover everything — for example, drugs and prostitution.

If Moses had got extras 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, legislators are by nature hyper-active and, since the Ten Commandments, have been assiduous in improving, extending and refining the law.

As societies develop and innovations occur, a lot of it has been important and necessary. But surely, in a sophisticated, mature and already fairly regulated country like ours, the vast bulk of the laws we really need are already there. By now, surely we should be slowing down the pace.

If that seems logical to you, the actual numbers – compiled by the Institute of Public Affairs – reveal the precise opposite.

Back in the early 1980s, Australia’s combined state and federal governments merrily pumped out around 12,500 pages of new laws per year. Some 30 years later, not only has the output not shrunk, it’s more than doubled, rocketing to almost 30,000 pages a year, virtually every year.

What company – no matter how big – can possibly keep its eye on its business and simultaneously read, let alone absorb 30,000 pages of new laws per year and be confident they’re complying with them? 

This question goes right to the root of a free and fair society. As Cicero said two millennia ago: “The more laws, the less justice.” (Cicero was a pretty wise and prescient fellow. He also said: “While there's life, there's hope and where there’s a wedding, there’s an expense claim,” or something like that.)

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 all of 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 years’ worth of these parliamentary “novels” side by side, they’d stretch wide, filling three long metres of shelf space. Stretch your arms wide – that’s how much they’re producing every year.

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

By the way, this annual parliamentary 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 federal government was approaching 7,000.

Out 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 that 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 for most people.

But fiction rarely demands that a reader digests and weighs every single word, whereas a law is absolutely a word-by-word, line-by-line exercise.

Adequately absorbing – and considering – 1.5 book-lengths of legislation per 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, kissing a few babies in shopping malls and flying off in government jets to footie grand finals and weddings.

The truth has to be that the people we elect to pass these laws can’t possibly be reading them, let alone fully understanding them. So Mr Professor Palmer is onto something here.

Most parliamentarians won’t read them. Instead, they’ll skim the department’s explanatory memorandum and chat to an adviser or fellow representative, who will point them to the juiciest bits.

If you’ve ever been involved in litigation, you’ll know that courts won’t jump to the departmental summary or an adviser’s interpretation. They will look first at the precise words of the law. It’s rarely the juicy bits, but some boring technical section everyone else’s eyes glazed over, so they never really bothered about it.

So if Honourable Members don’t have the time to read and fully understand a proposed law themselves, they shouldn’t let Parliament pass it until they do.

Dear Prime Minister, please stop the votes. And Mr Professor Palmer, top marks to you for pointing this out.

John M Green is a leading company director, commentator and novelist. His latest novel, The Trusted, is an eco-cyber-thriller, available in paperback and ebook. Click here for a free chapter and book trailer.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Company Director magazine.

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