Govt should curb its love of regulation

Commentary, Regulation, Frontier Centre

Editorial, New Zealand Herald, December 2, 2013

In themselves, the Government’s proposed amendments to the Fencing of Swimming Pools Act contain a reasonable degree of common sense. What can be wrong with changes that aim to reduce the risk of children drowning? And if the new law would mean even portable or inflatable pools need to be fenced off, isn’t it right to encourage parents to adopt best practice and empty them after each use?

The only problem is that the proposal is a further sign of a Government regulatory itch that is now of eczematous proportion. It is an odd situation for an administration that places much importance on personal freedom, prides itself on reducing rules and regulations, and criticised its predecessor for a nanny-state approach.

The extent of that regulatory itch was outlined in the Weekend Herald. Examples include the ever-decreasing speeding tolerance threshold, the reining in of bars’ happy-hour promotions, a ban on using cellphones while driving, prohibiting the sale of wine in dairies, and making beneficiaries immunise their children. Each was appropriate in its own way but each would also have engendered claims of social engineering if it had been the work of the previous Government.

Indeed, with both cellphones and immunisation, the Key Government has ventured where Labour declined to go.

Regulation appeals to governments because it is the easiest response to a problem. But each affects people’s freedom in some way. At their worst, regulations can also skew patterns of investment and the use of economic resources. That is why any government is right to question whether a planned restriction is strictly necessary. And if one is implemented, it should watch it in practice, not least for unintended consequences, and continue to ask if it is justified.

The Government should, therefore, be asking if changes to the swimming pool legislation are necessary when the most stringent fencing will not save young children from all potential water hazards. Many pools are, after all, not far from beaches or lakes, which cannot be barricaded in the way that private pools are meant to be.

Many people will see the proposed fencing changes as unreasonable.

It could be that the Government would be far better advised to appeal to parental and communal responsibility as a way to minimise the risk. Indeed, an administration boasting National Party principles would be expected to look elsewhere for solutions. If it needs inspiration to pursue that course, it need look no further than its predecessor.

Helen Clark’s Government attracted odium for its regulatory impulse in the likes of the smacking of children and limiting water flow from shower heads. Yet it sometimes showed restraint, as over cellphones and in rejecting calls from the medical profession for compulsory meningococcal vaccination. Appealing to parental responsibility was considered a better option. But one of its dictates, a ban on energy-hungry incandescent light bulbs late in its final term, carries a clear message for the Key Government. This initiative, while quite sensible in many ways, confirmed the impression for many people of a nanny state – delving too far into people’s personal space. There was much talk about personal freedom and people being able to use the lightbulb that suited their needs.

The lesson for the Government is that this was an area where Labour did not need to go. A short time after John Key cancelled the ban, the Electricity Commission noted that more than 80 per of households now used at least one energy-efficient fluorescent lightbulb. People recognised the new bulbs were a good idea, particularly because of the cost savings. A heavy hand had been unnecessary.

This Government, when it feels the itch, should ask itself if regulation is the best response, or even necessary at all.