Tell me what you want, what you really really want . . .

Peter Martin rang me yesterday morning because he told me he was going to write up my ideas on regulation, though we didn’t talk as long as both of us would have liked because his commitments at the time, and my subsequent commitments meant we couldn’t speak again. Journalism is like that. Anyway, he’d been doing a fair bit of reading of Lateral Economics stuff on regulation (pdf) so he was able to go away and do an admirable job of writing up the ideas.

I don’t know how the opening line will read in the Canberra times. But it looks great alongside the appropriate picture which is of course the Spice Girls.

I am a fan of that line “Tell me what you want, what you really really want”. It’s such a great line for an economist, that I don’t know why it hasn’t been picked up before. Perhaps it has. Peter says I’m a fan of the Spice Girls. I deny the allegation and repudiate the alligator. I really think journalists should show more responsibility. Does Peter have any idea of the possible implications of such a revelation for the (already flagging) respect my fourteen year old daughter has for her father, not to mention her own relations with her peers – should they discover and then believe these baseless allegations?

Still, if anyone can enlighten me as to the contents of the Spice Girls’ next line after they ask “tell me what you want” I’d be grateful.

I wanna really really really wanna zigazig ha.

I’ve always wanted to know. I know they’re touring again and would probably go if I thought I’d be enlightened. But I think they’re just teasing us. I wonder if we’ll ever know for sure?

That reminds me of a few other clarifications.

  • The PC recommendation to repeal ADR 25 wasn’t mine – made (from memory) in 1999 when I was a couple of years gone from there.
  • I haven’t ever called for a situation where businesses could simply proceed with what they regard as the letter of the law, but did say to Peter in the brief interview that was cut short that there were two extremes
    • a system where business has a right to request a response from regulators on a regulation, something that was tried and dismally failed as outlined in the Regulation and Innovation (pdf) report cited above
    • a system where there is some way of getting regulators to uphold rights to alternative compliance.

    Peter explains that I think we need to find some middle way between two extremes but explains the ‘deregulatory’ extreme (the second of the two below) in more radical terms than I had envisaged. That’s a happy accident. I wouldn’t have got to the extreme he outlines – where businesses can just do what they ‘really really want’ if they can demonstrate that it’s within the spirit of the regulation – because, apart from other things business wouldn’t be remotely interested in it. (It would be too risky for them. They have nothing to reassure them that they won’t be successfully prosecuted.) But conceptually it’s probably a better ‘extreme’ position than the one I outlined to him. I’m such a reasonable person you know, I have trouble with extremes – like all denizens of Troppo . . . .

  • And, I hadn’t thought of ‘tell me what you want, what you really really want’ as a line with direct relevance to this area, but that’s a happy accident too – what cross fertilisation is all about. Peter is right – it’s a good one here too – though not because firms will ever be able, or ever want to, do what they really really want without some confidence that what this is is legal.

Postscript: It occurs to me that I am being too literal in my quest for the meaning of ‘zigazig ha’. Usually a mistake in this changeable game of life. Sometimes one waits too long just to realise the answer is sitting there, right under your nose. As Sigmund Freud might have said “sometimes a zigazig ha is just a zigazig ha“.

Postscript 2: Artwork by Don Arthur!

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Richard Phillipps
Richard Phillipps
16 years ago

The thing about car locks and regulation demonstrates a huge legal issue, I think. It is, simply, that law that is written by legislators is almost inevitably too tight and does not leave enough wiggle room. We can see this if we compare the common law, and the way judges (with all their faults) are able to deal with just the issue in front of them, follow principles, and leave space for the law to develop.

This is not to be starry eyed about sometimes dopey judges and the slippery concept of ratio decidendi and so on; it is simply to point out that law that evolves in a kind of organic way is often preferable to the hard edged geometric written law. A good example is the huge weight of our migration law, which has been written so as to allow no scope for judicial discretion. The result was that the minister ended up getting flooded w lots of cases which the written law did not fit, even though the ideas behind it and logic and humanity might dictate otherwise.

This is partly an effect of the way laws are written nowadays. Compare the slim Sale of Goods Act w the rotund Trade Practices Act. The issue is a doomed destire for precision, which tends to end up with a lot of babies going out with the bathwater. (My cliche count is getting a bit high – sorry)

There are some workarounds. For example, the trend to purposive rather than literal interpretation of statutes helps, as does the insertion of objects clauses in legislation – or it would if most objects clauses did not appear to have been written by blood crazed orcs.

Sometimes you see some good ideas. The Building Code of Australia is “performance based”. It provides objectives and performance requirements (what a window should do) and then it provided “deemed to satisfy” specifications, but if they dont work in a particular case it expressly allows for “alternative solutions” which may be devised to meet the particular case. So if you did that w car locks, the performance requirement would be (say) “make the car secure against theft except by the owner”; the “deemed to satisfy” would be locks/keys/number of tumblers etc, but an “alternative solution” might be keyless and depend on (say) fingerprint recognition or some other technology.

SOrry, this went on a bit longer than I expected. I would have liked to put in a link to the BCA but I don’t know how. See my pathetic request about blogs somewhere else in this thing.

So regulation should be expressly purposive; it should have clear (and intelligent) objectives; it should allow for development.


[…] 50,000th non-spam comment has just been posted by Richard Phillips. Here’s a taste: The thing about car locks and […]

Tom N.
Tom N.
16 years ago

I saw the article and associate picture too, Nick. Nice folliage!

More seriously though, one question that it reraised in my mind was the validitty of the RIS excuse that the road safety regulators gave you for their failure to get rid off the ADR 61. I don’t know to what extent you had time to explore it in the public hearings, but having worked in the ORR at around this time, I find it hard to believe that the extent of analysis (and associated costs of compiling a RIS) that would have been demanded for such a change would have been significant. Of course, in the new environment post the Banks Taskforce (on which I also worked), the need for proportionality etc is built more explicity into the system. That said, it might be an interesting test of the system to explore exactly how, under the new arrangements, such as proposal, if submitted to the OPBR, would be handled today.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
16 years ago

“Still, if anyone can enlighten me as to the contents of the Spice Girls next line after they ask tell me what you want Id be grateful…I wanna really really really wanna zigazig ha”

(Sigh), Nicholas, if you replace “zigazig ha” with “sex” you’ll pretty much be in the ballpark. Sometimes a cigar isn’t about a cigar but pop music is pretty much always about sex.

David Stephens
David Stephens
16 years ago

I’m way behind but we put this in as an op ed to Canberra Times in response to the article on Nicholas. Unfortunately, not published. Among the posts, we particularly liked Richard Phillipps’s boost for the Building Code, a good example of an alternative to burdensome statute law. The Code stars in the piece below.


New thinking needed in deregulation
John Tucker
Lindsay Tanners deregulation adviser. Nicholas Gruen, is not only a Spice Girls fan but also a lateral thinker in a field where there has been precious little of this (Preparing for a red tape revolt, March 1, p. B2).

Excessive black-letter regulation over the decades has led to calls to relieve the red tape burden and extinguish regulatory hot spots. Minister Tanner at the Federal level and Minister Emerson and his colleagues in COAG have embarked on a new deregulation exercise and, with goodwill on all sides and Dr Gruens assistance, they should have some success.

Dr Gruens themes lead us in new directions. The interesting thing is that some sectors of Australian business, industry and the community are there already.

Dr Gruens first theme is that we should focus on the intent of regulation not what it says but what it is meant to do to ensure that cars are difficult to steal, for example. Good idea. Standards makers in Australia and internationally already produce performance-based standards, leaving it to manufacturers and other standards users to innovate with specifications to achieve or better the standard.

Dr Gruens second theme is that having more and better regulatory impact statements (RISs) and one-in, one-out rules is only part of the story. Good point again. The Office of Best Practice Regulation at the Federal level and similar bodies in the States and Territories should not just be RIS police. They should have an educative role, including educating public servants (and Ministers) in lighter touch forms of regulation, including self-regulation, as an alternative to detailed and debilitating black-letter regulation.

One-in, one-out is pointless if it is only a mathematical exercise; it would not necessarily reduce the burden of regulation. It would do so, however, if there was a requirement that the piece of regulation coming in had to be a light touch option either self-regulation or industry codes or standards underpinned by regulation.

Dr Gruens third theme is that the regulatory optimum will lie somewhere between being bound by black-letter regulation and abiding by the spirit of the regulation. Fair point again. COAG and Minister Tanner and his team should look at successful mid spectrum examples of generalised regulation that refers to standards developed by consensus between stakeholders business, government and consumers particularly because consensus-based standards are less likely to lead to later complaints about regulatory burdens.

The Building Code of Australia, administered by the Australian Building Codes Board, is one such example. It embodies a uniform approach to building regulation across Australia. The Productivity Commission said in 2004 that reform of building regulation has delivered greater certainty and efficiency to the building industry, as well as benefits to the broader community. The Board has successfully reduced many regulatory differences across jurisdictions, especially those based on the core elements of the Code, and established the framework for a performance-based regulatory regime. Not a bad standard for our deregulators to aim at.

John Tucker is Chief Executive Officer, Standards Australia, the national standards body