Statutory Obligations – The Hand Of A Light Touch?

Sean Fletcher

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

For those of us in the Western World, our statutory obligations generally consist of how society is regulated through the use of legislation.

Here in Australia, the battle between the current level of statutory compliance as opposed to a “light handed touch” to our regulatory responsibilities, is once again on the menu.

The Abbot Government recently released the Final Report of the Harper Review regarding the National Competition Policy. In short, the Harper Review has recommended that the key to Australia’s economic re-invigoration is through the use of the “light handed touch” approach.

As much as this would be a welcome relief to many i.e. the hope that there may well be a reduction in the statutory obligations for businesses and organisations in general, the reality is, if history is anything to go by, the most likely outcome is that there will be an increase in regulation, but perhaps not as onerous as what we would normally expect.

Why Do We Have Regulation?

Well, as we all know, the need for regulation is so that the economic markets can run smoothly, people are kept safe and the environment is protected. Regulations are also in place regarding those things that cannot be dictated by the marketplace, and would typically fall within the ambit of the “public interest”.

We exist at an interesting time. Since 2008, financial pressure has driven industry and governments around the world to find solutions to problems caused by regulators asleep at the wheel and certain players in key markets taking advantage of those who actually needed protection.

A colleague of mine once said to me (in my former capacity as a local government CEO) that my job was to try and keep what he and others did regarding business fenced in, and that it was his job to try and break out. To my mind, the analogy regarding the role of the regulator and the antagonist could not be put any better. Needless to say, I replied I didn’t quite see it his way, but I did appreciate the sentiment.

At the end of the day, the use of statutory power is only as good as the people who have the responsibility for administering it. One thing that has become noticeable during the last two decades is that we are all resource (people) strapped, and the regulator is in exactly the same boat. Whether this will change, now that the Australian economy is cooling, remains to be seen. Although there may be more people to choose from for key jobs, it doesn’t mean that the regulators will take on experienced staff to help them do what they do. After all, the Australian Tax Office, just to name one, has systematically reduced its staff numbers to meet the Commonwealth Government’s budgetary constraints.

Further to this, in discussions with colleagues recently, the same old chestnut emerged: who is left regarding the various regulatory authorities with the relevant technical knowledge and skills to advise on what is acceptable from a regulatory (safe) viewpoint. It would seem that government bureaucracy is now more about policy and procedures developed for people in the frontline who really do not appreciate the finer detail, and cannot give the immediate response that is so often required.

In the days when I actually worked for a State government regulator, the key we found to resolving tricky regulatory matters was the use of common sense. This meant having a very good understanding of our regulatory responsibilities and applying this in a way that would meet our clients needs in a timely manner! “Impossible”, I hear you say, but I can assure you, this can be done. The issue comes back to understanding the forces of change, and with that the push and pull effect of the “public interest” regarding such factors.

Then there are the State and Territory regulators meeting with the Commonwealth on a regular basis to try and reach consistency across the Commonwealth. Not everyone wants to play ball, and many good public servants and other stakeholders involved in such a process become burned out through the frustration and time it takes to reach an outcome.

Of course, another key ingredient is this: those who are regulated, or are protected by regulation, need to participate in the process. In other words, it is far easier for the regulator to help those who help themselves. Granted in this scenario, the regulator needs to be approachable in the first instance.

So, at the end of the day, even if we do achieve the “hand of a light touch”, will it really produce what we need?

What’s Coming Up!

Over the next few posts I am going to look at some key issues regarding statutory obligations including:

  • Whether the recommendations of the Harper Review will gain traction; and
  • The impact of the final report into the plumbing industry in Western Australia including the proposed changes and the length of time it has taken to do the review and its impacts.

If you have a point of view, let me know

Sean Fletcher is the Principal Consultant at Strategic Teams, Sci-Fi enthusiast and plays the guitar. 

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