It’s all a bit Thick of It (or Yes, Minister for older readers) but every so often our government ministers have to front up and answer questions to a Budget Estimates committee.
On a Federal level, watching ministers squirm under the blowtorch glare of someone like Penny Wong, saying they will have to ask their civil servants who just happen to be sitting resolutely silent beside them, can be a sitcom in itself.
And, of course, we have the same kind of political theatre at state level too. Two weeks ago on February 5, it was the turn of Better Regulation (the mothership of Fair Trading) in the spotlight.
Sadly there were no Malcolm Tucker explosions of expletives to lighten up the discourse. But, if nothing else, the following exchanges illustrate perfectly why strata should be ripped out of this multi-faceted monolithic ministry, where we are competing for attention with everything from dodgy mechanics to dangerous toys.
The main politicians in this discussion are Minister for Better Regulation Kevin Anderson and MLC Daniel Mookhey (Shadow Minister for Finance and Small Business, and for the Gig Economy).
The civil servants in supporting roles are John Tansey, Executive Director Regulatory Policy, Better Regulation Division and (mentioned in passing) Rose Webb, Deputy Secretary of the Better Regulation Division and Commissioner of Fair Trading.
Shakespeare it ain’t but the following exchanges reveal the dangers of a policy being developed by two ministries at the same time. In short, we have a code of conduct in place that refers to a register of short-term holiday letting premises (like Airbnb) and a related blacklist, neither of which exist.
And that’s not to mention the topic that’s never mentioned – the fire regulations that could shut down 80 percent of Airbnbs (if there was a register).
The ensuing discussions have a whiff of both buck-passing and that other great political skill – if you can’t answer the question you’ve been given, answer one you wish you’d been asked.
Daniel Mookhey: Minister, I have a few questions about short-term accommodation. After Parliament passed the Fair Trading Amendment (Short-term Rental Accommodation) Act, your department and Department of Planning, Industry and Environment [DPIE] were working on a code of conduct and a new State Environmental Planning Policy [SEPP], that is correct?
Kevin Anderson: What we were working on in terms of the Residential Tenancies Act? We were looking at basically looking after those most vulnerable in our community.
Daniel Mookhey: No, I am talking about the short-term rental accommodation Act.
Kevin Anderson: Oh, short-term—sorry, Mr Mookhey.
Daniel Mookhey: Your department and DPIE were working on a code of conduct and a new SEPP, that is correct?
Kevin Anderson: My department was working on a code of conduct.
Daniel Mookhey: Yes, and the code of conduct was implemented on 18 December 2020, that is that correct?
Kevin Anderson: That is correct.
Daniel Mookhey: But the SEPP is yet to be issued in any form. It has gone missing. Do you know when it is going to be released?
Kevin Anderson: My understanding is that it is not too far off, but that is a question for the planning Minister.
Daniel Mookhey: Have you spoken to the planning Minister about this recently?
Kevin Anderson: Yes. We recently talked in relation to short-term holiday rental. In terms of the code of conduct that we put in place, it is having a very positive effect on the market and it has been welcomed.
Daniel Mookhey: The issue is that the industry is saying that half of the regulatory framework is missing. You have issued a code of conduct that requires them to meet certain legal obligations, but they do not know what the legal obligations are because the other half of it, the planning instrument, is not in place.
It has created this extraordinary position where they could be held responsible for breaching laws that they are not aware of. So, given that you are jointly responsible with planning Minister, can you provide us some guidance as to when the other half of this regulatory framework is going to be in place?
And are you pausing the enforcement of the code of conduct as a result of planning’s failure to issue the SEPP.
Kevin Anderson: No, we are not pausing the code of conduct. It is live now. In relation to the SEPP, that is a matter for the planning Minister.
Daniel Mookhey: The framework was also meant to be accompanied by a premises register that is not public yet and not operating. You are responsible for building this premises register and this was a crucial part of the promise that you made. When is the premises register going to be up and running?
Kevin Anderson: I will ask Ms Webb and Mr Tansey in relation to the premises register.
Mr Tansey: So, in fact, the premises register is part of the planning system framework. Together with the SEPP, the premises register is being developed by our colleagues in planning.
Daniel Mookhey: Well, your code of conduct turns on the existence of that register. Can you guarantee us that at least these [STHL] platforms are going to be able to see the register, given that this is a Fair Trading joint project? Are they at least going to be able to see the register before they are meant to comply with it?
Kevin Anderson: Again, Mr Mookhey, in relation to the register, that as a matter for the Minister for planning. They will work through those issues. We are focused on making sure that those party animals who book out those Airbnbs are not upsetting the neighbours.
Daniel Mookhey: Minister, this is the problem. You have set a code of conduct that you say is to deal with the party animals, but you have no idea where the party animals are because there is no register in place, all of which points to the absurdity of rolling out half of the framework and being unable to tell the industry where the rest of it is up to.
Do you not recognise that is an absurd proposition to put everybody, especially when we are trying to get domestic tourism revived to create jobs, that no-one in the short-term industry knows how to comply with the laws your Government is meant to be setting.
Kevin Anderson: In terms of that, Mr Mookhey, the behavioural code is working. We are seeing positive responses back from those booking platforms.
Hmmm. We have written today to Fair Trading and Planning and asked them the following:
- Are you on track to deliver the Airbnb register by June, as promised last year?
- Have any breaches been reported to Fair Trading?
- Are there any names already waiting to go on the blacklist for code breaches?
- Will the fire safety elements outlined in the discussion documents issued in August 2018 still be part of the code of conduct?
We’ll let you know if and when we get a response …