OCCUPATIONAL LICENSING NATIONAL LAW (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) REPEAL BILL

Second Reading

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 11 February 2016.)

Ms CHAPMAN ( Bragg—Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (12:40): I rise to speak on the Occupational Licensing National Law (South Australia) Repeal Bill 2016 which will be supported by the opposition, and indicate that I will be the lead speaker.

As has been adeptly pointed out by my colleague, the member for Hammond, this is about the dismantling of a national program that was to bring about efficiencies and benefits to various occupations which are required to be licensed and, in particular, to have some uniformity and cutting of the unnecessary obligations to replicate licensing or undertake various different types of training or thresholds to be approved for the purposes of operating in different states.

I can only say, 'How the wheel turns.' We are here today dismantling one of the national programs which had come with great expectation and which was underpinned by great promises. Also, as outlined by my colleague, the national regulation in respect of heavy vehicles would have to be one of the most blistering examples of incompetence, with promises of reform that would be of benefit to truck and transport operators which has ballooned into an expensive, delay-filled and frustrating process for the regulation of that industry now in Queensland.

Still today, we have issues of delay in respect of permits for the purposes of allowing operators to deal with seasonal transport and access to and from facilities (whether they are at a port and going through a town or what is called the first mile/last mile problems associated with accessing rural properties to pick up produce).

It is a disgrace and I lay the entire blame for that with the state governments who signed up to transfer responsibility of this area to a federal body, as I say, set up in Queensland before they had even set up the Queensland operation. We are left with this enormous hiatus and enormous cost of interruption to people's businesses as a result of the total mishandling of that transfer. They promised the world and delivered a nightmare and it is still unresolved.

I would have to say that, fortunately, the nationalising of regulation in respect of rail, which takes place in an Adelaide office, has certainly been better for those who are Adelaide operators, not that we have many of them as they are mostly operated by international companies who swing through South Australia en route to other destinations.

I would have to say that, to the best of my knowledge, the national regulation on marine vessels, which operates out of, curiously, Canberra—it does not have any ocean around it but, nevertheless, they are the headquarters for the national regulation for marine vessels—is also one that is apparently functioning quite well. But it is fair to say that the regulation in that area, again, is not of great capacity or number in South Australia. Our port, it is fair to say, is relatively small compared to, say, Melbourne; however, it is an important part of our transport operation and it ought not be impeded by having to deal with a national structure if it is inefficient. That, as I understand, though, is going along reasonably well.

We have had national regulation in respect of health professionals for all manner of health specialties, across to allied health-type services such as optometry in the time I have been here. I would have to say, that is more expensive in a number of those areas than it was when it was operated entirely under the state regime.

I will give credit to the former minister for health, the Hon. John Hill, who has just written his memoirs, and I see he has featured me on a few pages. He at least fought at the national level to make sure that, when we dealt with optometrists national regulation, we protected principally young women in this state from being able to get access to plano lenses, which were like a little lens you could put in your eye that were coloured or looked like cat's eyes or whatever, and ensured that, according to our South Australian standard, we would insist (notwithstanding the poor standard at the national level) on it being in our regulation, and it is still there today, as best as I understand. Good on him for ensuring that we do not move to what frequently becomes the lowest common denominator standard for the purposes of these national regulatory structures and the bodies that go with them.

So, we have had a few of them come through this house with promises by this government that the reform is going to provide cheaper, quicker and better regulatory regimes and they have certainly not lived up to their name. When they are hopeless, when they are inadequate, when they are just adding another layer of inefficiency to the occupation or industry that they purport to regulate, then at least some common sense in this bill has prevailed and we are getting rid of it. But there are consequences, and I am going to refer to those more in committee, but I think we do need to have some understanding about what the costs are to dismantle and what is going to happen with the money in the fund. I will be raising some of those issues later.

I will say, though, for the purposes of any minister who is getting excited about another proposed regulatory shift to the national level, that not everything that operates through a national scheme is good. We have given some examples, and those that operate bureaucracies in Canberra or under a federal label can have just as many inefficiencies and can be just as incompetent as any state one.

If I were to give the most significant example that I have witnessed during my time being in here, it would be the time that AQIS (the national body in respect of responsibility for quarantine) let horse flu into this country. The consequences to our equine industry, racing industry and the like were massive. So, they can be equally useless and they can be equally hopeless. The management of those in Canberra, for example through the pink batts disaster, of the implementation of policies that they want to progress as a federal government can be equally disastrous.

In that case, essentially, there was a federal government policy which was purported to support an initiative to get a whole lot of money out into the community in a hurry to offer to provide installation of pink batts in people's homes, and there was an effective bypass of the safety standards and training qualifications for persons who were going to install those initiatives to people's homes.

We saw as a result young men die, houses burned down and a scandalous amount of money then having to be spent on relooking at all the homes that had been fitted under this initiative, including thousands of them here in South Australia owned by the South Australian Housing Trust, which its tenants were not supposed to even get access to but they did. So, we had this massive cost then having to go back and retro-assess properties that had signed up, obviously to ensure that we minimise the risk to householders under that dreadfully incompetent scheme. And how do they get away with it? It was nothing to do with the standards that were imposed by each of the states at the time in respect of the insulation operators that were under state regimes. It was because the federal government of the day wanted to bypass and fast track its initiative and safety was compromised.

So, I am not at all confident that everything that goes to Canberra actually is good, and I think that it is a sobering lesson to understand that even something like this, which every one wanted to sign up to—that is, occupational licensing—was going to be good. So back in 2008 the then Rudd government decided at its COAG meeting, with a majority of other states, that it would have this national trade licensing scheme. They got started. The first wave of occupations was to include these air conditioning and refrigeration mechanics, plumbers, gas fitters, electricians and property agents, and we dealt with our legislation in South Australia to accommodate that back in 2011.

On our side of the house we raised our concerns about national regulatory systems, as we always do, but nevertheless supported the government under the promises which were being presented and the imposition put to us as a parliament, which I still consider an imposition when these leaders at COAG go off and sign up to things and then expect us to rubber stamp them. Anyway, we will not revisit that again, the fact is that we then had a whole lot of other professional parties that were to be licensed through this national scheme.

Fortunately, after the Abbott government was elected in December 2013 it had a COAG led by then prime minister Abbott and common sense prevailed after there had been a litany of identified problems with the national scheme. Then prime minister Abbott, with a majority of states at their COAG, indicated that they would resolve to dismantle the national scheme, that it would be abandoned and that there would be in its place at least (because clearly it had not reduced barriers to labour mobility and it had not dealt with the inefficiencies that it had promised) at that point an agreement between the states, through their Council for the Australian Federation, to develop alternative options for minimising licensing impediments.

It is fair to say that jurisdictions did try to deal with that, including in South Australia. In 2012 we had looked at legislation to enable the recognition of interstate licences. It is also fair to say that at that stage we had a big problem in South Australia. The Commissioner for Consumer and Business Services was responsible for processing the licensing applications of a number of professions; and at the time in the construction industry there was a massive backlog of over 1,200 applications so some effort needed to be made to ensure that there was a catch-up of that. It was certainly addressed here in the parliament as a problem. I think, by the time the minister (also Attorney-General) brought on some new initiatives by 2013, he claimed that there had been an improvement and we had a department that was processing some 300 at any one time.

Also in 2013, minister Rau, as the Minister for Consumer and Business Services, indicated on 19 June 2013 that he would cut red tape for interstate work under the National Occupational Licensing System. Remember that this was a few months before it was ultimately abandoned by the COAG of December 2013 and he was still singing the praises of the national scheme. I do not know whether he had his head in the sand through all this, because it was an absolute disaster.

The claim that he made was that this new nationally-led system will see a single authority for trade licensing that will develop a consistent set of responsibilities and licence eligibility criteria across state and territory borders. This phase of the National Occupational Licensing System will apply to plumbers, gasfitters, electricians, refrigeration and air-conditioning mechanics, real estate agents and sales representatives. Under the new system, licences for these trades will be recognised in all states and territories, etc.

Remember that, by this stage, there were major problems being identified by the stakeholders which culminated in COAG abandoning this, but three months before the abandonment of it, our minister, the Minister for Business Services and Consumers (also Attorney-General) was still singing its praises. In any event, how the wheel turns. We are here, we are getting rid of it, and the proposal is to dismantle whatever has been going on at the national level and everyone is going to be given their money back.

I was provided a letter from the Attorney yesterday via the Hon. Rob Lucas, who has the carriage of this bill on behalf of the opposition in another place, and it seeks to provide some information as to the dismantling of the scheme. It is wholly inadequate for my purposes so there will be a number of questions in committee on that. I seek leave to continue my remarks.