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  • Rex Widerstrom

Time to clean up politics – and not just in the way you might think

While NewZealand ponders the aftermath dirty politics, and a crop of newly minted politicians find their way to the Parliamentary bathrooms, I’ve been considering ‘clean’ politics: the stuff that goes on openly, in Parliament’s debating chamber.

During the last, 50th, Parliament, our lawmakers added 346 new statutes to the books. Since the House sat for 1,409 hours that works out to just over four hours of scrutiny per Bill. Some, of course, received a great deal more – days of debate, in fact – which means many received very much less.

New Zealand currently has 1940 Acts of Parliament. Include Amendment Acts, however, and you get 3,854. Add in “Legislative Instruments” (bylaws, regulations, orders etc.) and it’s 8,937 pieces of law, some of them many hundreds of pages long. Everyone’s favourite, the Income Tax Act of 2007, runs to 3,917 pages.

At the risk of sounding like Sir Geoffrey Palmer, many are archaic – do we really still need the Year 2000 Information Disclosure Act of 1999?

But even if we eliminate the private Acts, the dusty relics and the laws which apply to only a very small number of people (the previous owner of the Rangiora drill shed, vested in ‘His Majesty the King’ by a 1913 Act, has probably passed on) we’re still left with thousands and thousands of pages of law applying to the daily lives of most New Zealanders.

Very few laws extend the freedom of the individual. In fact I can’t think of one, though I accept there may be some, or parts of some. Most, instead, proscribe our behaviour. Of course much of it is unarguably necessary; some people need to be told they can’t cause bodily or financial harm to others, and to be punished when they do. But much of it is not, and I’d argue a lot of it is unnecessary.

This isn’t a debate that has much currency in New Zealand, but it does elsewhere. In 2009, the UK’s Lord Chief Justice, the aptly named Lord Judge, said there was too much legislation framed in too many words creating too many crimes. A year later the Bishop of Bath and Wells said that many well-meaning laws were destroying society.

In 2013 US House Speaker John Boehner said Republicans believed “Most Americans think we have too many laws. And what they want us to do is repeal more of those”. That same year the chair of the Criminal Justice Section of the American Bar Association, William Shepherd, noted that America is statistically safer now than it has been in decades… but generally the area of new crimes and new regulation focuses not on violent crimes of rape and murder but, instead, on nuance regulatory structures”.

And as recently as January of this year The Australian’s Economics Correspondent Adam Creighton was musing on the “emphasis on form over substance and a naive belief in the power of legislation to change reality pervad[ing] the nation’s parliaments”. Two years, prior, in 2012, the Gillard government thought it worth bragging that it has passed a record number of legislative instruments – more than 8,000 pages worth in a single year.

This state of affairs has led, invariably, to the rise of the lawyers. Australia, Canada and Britain each have about 280 lawyers per 100,000 people, and the US, 380.

New Zealand seems to have about 260, according to the NZ Law Society’s Snapshot of the Legal Profession [pdf]. That compares to 12 in Japan and 70 in France.

As far as I know, not one party sees this as a problem, certainly not one that requires a firm commitment to less law. The Conservatives make vague mention of ”good government” being “limited”; while the supposedly libertarian-leaning ACT commits to “limit the involvement of central and local government to areas where collective action is required” and then reels off a list of additional legislation it’d like to see implemented. Neither mentions repealing the myriad restrictions which already exist.

It is simply impossible that every single new batch of Parliamentarians can find over 300 holes that truly need plugging with a new Bill on something or other. It’s equally impossible to believe that New Zealanders are so lawless, or stupid, or inconsiderate to one another that they need almost 9,000 separate rules and regulations telling them how to behave.

A clean-out is long overdue. Trawling through 8,937 statutory instruments and asking the question – not just for the entire document but for each clause – “would the country be worse off if this were repealed and people left to their own devices?” doesn’t sound exciting. It’s not something Nicky Hager will ever write a book about. It won’t excite the blogosphere, or even the Press Gallery.

But if freedom matters to our elected representatives – and it should – then it’s something our new Parliamentarians should commit to doing.

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