Opening Statement to Senate Select Committee into Fintech and Regtech

[This is the Hansard of the opening statement delivered on behalf of Dr Chris Berg, Dr Aaron Lane and myself to the Senate Select Committee into Fintech and Regtech]

Good morning. We welcome the opportunity to appear before this important committee today. I’m delivering this opening statement on behalf of my associates Dr Chris Berg, Dr Aaron Lane and myself. We appear here today in our personal capacity. We are a team of academic economists and lawyers affiliated with the RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub in Melbourne. Chris is also a member of the steering committee of the Australian government National Blockchain Roadmap. Our research explores complex economic and public policy implications of frontier digital technology, including blockchain.

We have provided a written submission to the committee that outlines our research in this field. Our submission has two themes. The first theme is the potential of blockchain as new digital infrastructure. Applications of this technology represent a fundamental shift in the governance structure of the economy, with applications ranging from supply chains to decentralised finance, or DeFi. For Australia, blockchain represents a unique opportunity to transition our major sectors, such as trade and education, towards the digital economy.

The second theme of our research turns to the challenges that blockchain presents for regulation, or, more broadly, what governments do to foster blockchain innovation. Understanding the regulatory challenges of blockchains must recognise that blockchains are unique technologies of governance. They enable us to organise and to coordinate in new ways by facilitating trusted information and trade.

Ongoing regulatory possibilities of blockchain innovations are critical. While we do not cover specific regulatory issues in our submission, our interactions with industry partners suggest some current challenges, including [inaudible] taxation system, the potential treatment of blockchain and decentralised finance, products as managed investment schemes—some of these issues relating to ICOs [inaudible] issue. And finally whether blockchain base records will be accessible by Australian regulators—any specific regulation must be housed within a broader regulatory approach. Our standards should demonstrate to entrepreneurs that governments are adaptable and open to innovation and willing to reduce regulatory concerns. Our recommendation is that governments aid the transition to a digital economy by using and improving regulatory reform tools, such as sandboxes, to facilitate the process of regulatory evolution.

We thank you for the opportunity to appear before this committee and we welcome any questions that you have regarding our submission.

Opening Remarks to the Senate Select Committee on Red Tape, Perth

You can now read my opening remarks to the Senate Select Committee on Red Tape, focusing on environmental assessments and approvals. These remarks were made at a public hearing in Perth on 22 August 2017.

CHAIR: I welcome representatives from the Institute of Public Affairs. Thank you for appearing before the committee today. I invite you to make a brief opening statement should you wish to do so.

Mr Allen:  Red tape costs Australians $176 billion each year in foregone economic output. That is the equivalent of 11 per cent of GDP. This burden is not just the paper or direct costs of red tape; it also includes those businesses that were never started, those jobs that were never created and the lost time adhering to unnecessary regulation.

Environmental assessments and approvals are one of the key aspects of Australia’s red tape crisis. This is because Australian environmental law has not only been expanding but it has been becoming more centralised. As our research reveals, the number of federal pages of environmental law has increased 80-fold since the first federal environment department was introduced. In 1971 there were 57 pages of federal environmental law. In 2016 there were 4,669.

Cutting red tape is critical because we are reliant on business investment and we operate in an internationally competitive marketplace of mobile capital. The current level of Australian business investment, however, is only 12.2 per cent of GDP. That is lower than the Whitlam era average of 13.7 per cent. Furthermore, whilst since 2004 Australia’s population over the age of 15 has grown by 22 per cent, the number of new businesses opening has dropped by five per cent. This means Australia has both declining investment and entrepreneurial activity. Environmental red tape discourages starting new projects and expanding existing ones. For example, the Adani coal mine has spent seven years in the approvals process and prepared a 22,000-page environmental impact assessment. The Roy Hill iron ore mine required more than 4,000 separate licences, approvals and permits in the preconstruction phase alone. While the optimum level of regulation to achieve a given environmental objective may not be zero, requiring thousands of licences for a project is far above what can be considered minimum best practice regulation.

Our submission has emphasised a number of key aspects of red tape in Australia’s environmental law, including green lawfare through section 487 of the EPBC Act, the water trigger in that same act, as well as native vegetation clearing laws at the state level. Given the federal emphasis of this inquiry, however, we will focus on the former two. Section 487 of the EPBC Act should be repealed. Section 487 extends legal standings specifically to green groups to challenge federal environmental approvals, even when the private rights of the challengers are not affected by a proposal. This section is being used to gain legal standing for anti-development activism through the legal system. Indeed, green groups do not need to win a case in court for their activism to be successful; disrupting and delaying projects through lengthy court appearances often makes projects commercially unviable.

IPA research has shown that 87 per cent of challenges under section 487 that have proceeded to judgment have been rejected in court. That is 87 per cent. Since 2000, major projects in Australia have spent approximately 7,500 cumulative days, that is 20 years, in court due to legal standing gained under section 487. The IPA estimates that these delays have cost the economy as much as $1.2 billion.

The water trigger within the EPBC Act should also be repealed. Introduced in 2013, the water trigger requires all large coal and coal seam gas projects which may affect the water resource to receive approval from the federal environment minister. The water trigger is not intended to protect water resources but rather aims to slow the development of coal seam gas and large coal mines. Why else would the water trigger not apply to other activities? The regulation of water activities should be returned solely to the power of the states.

These two examples of environmental red tape speak to some of the core problems of over regulation and red tape within the environmental law more broadly. Any agreed-upon environmental objectives are not necessarily most effectively achieved through the use of complex and costly government approvals processes. We encourage the development of alternatives to this heavy handed regulatory approach. This could include, for instance, the development of market based mechanisms where those who value environmental amenity pay to achieve that objective.

Policy makers should also focus on removing unnecessary duplication and overlap with regulatory responsibilities between different levels of government. This process should include the principle of devolving regulatory powers and responsibility downwards to the state level; that is, to embrace environmental federalism. Thank you very much. We welcome any questions that you may have.

A Response to the Productivity Commission Draft Report on the Regulation of Agriculture

This submission was made for the Institute of Public Affairs with Chris Berg, Mikayla Novak and Daniel Wild to the Productivity Commission inquiry into the Regulation of Agriculture (Download the PDF).

The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) welcomes this Productivity Commission Draft report (henceforth the ‘Draft’) on the Regulation of Agriculture and encourages the focus on the impact of regulation and red tape on this primary industry.

While Australian agricultural production is expected to rise to over $60 billion for the first time this financial year, productivity and competitiveness headwinds remain. With around two thirds of Australia’s agricultural production exported, our agribusinesses compete in a global game of productivity and quality, with farmers often taking world prices on commodity markets.

The role of Australian governments is to create an institutional and regulatory environment conducive to productivity improvements, innovation, and economic growth. Governments must protect private property rights and facilitate the free movement of capital and goods.

To achieve this involves returning to the basic economics of regulatory design: do the benefits of intervention outweigh the costs? The Draft is a welcome return to this principle across a wide variety of areas. As such, the Institute of Public Affairs welcomes, in particular:

  • Recommending that governments search for market-based implementation of environmental policy objectives, particularly where governments purchase environmental services off landholders.
  • Reform of inconsistent, contradictory and overlapping land use and native vegetation legislation preventing farmers from flexibility and efficiently using their land.
  • Recommending reform of transport regulation, including both the complex crossjurisdictional maze of licenses, permits and restricted supply heavy vehicles, and the anti-competitive cabotage system for coastal shipping.
  • Relaxing restrictions on foreign investment flows by raising the thresholds of the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB). However, there is much more to be done.

The IPA also recommends abolishing section 487 of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act which enables green activist groups to insert themselves within the environmental approval process. Section 487 has provided no clear benefit to the environment while simultaneously imposing project delays through vexatious litigation. Abolishing section 487 is a no regrets policy: the environment won’t be worsened while landholders’ are less likely to be met with costly project delays.

Proceeding to repeal the above examples of red tape will help to unleash part of the $176 billion in foregone Australian economic output due to red tape each year.