IN PRAISE OF GOVERNMENT REGULATION.
One of the things we all love to hate are ‘Government/Shire Regulations’. Where ever people gather for a beer and a sausage all you have to do is mention the subject and stories pour out from the aggrieved about how regulations stopped them doing what they wanted, or made it too expensive or too onerous. It’s worth reflecting however that unless you are one of those outfits with matching four wheel drives, a flat on The Gold Coast and a carbon footprint that a yeti would be proud of – without the process of regulation, developed over the last 200 years, your life would be very different. You would either be dead, disfigured, chronically ill or crippled and living in a slum, 6 to room, with raw sewage on the floor. You would have the life expectancy of your family pet. You would have fallen victim to the fiercest and most efficient predator on the planet – us. You see humans are the only species of animal that prey on their own kind – it is called the ‘free market’. Take the bothersome business of having to record the ingredients on the label of prepared food for sale. Corporations have to do this and so do you – even for jams and things you make for fund raising stalls. What a bother! Generally this is considered to be so the purchaser will not eat food for which they may have a life threatening allergy but there is more to it than that. We need to go back in time to the 19th century where free enterprise was king and nothing was allowed get in the way of profit. A situation yearned for and extolled by some of our more excitable business leaders and politicians today. In those exciting and unregulated times gypsum or sand was used to cut sugar, butter was mixed with lard or tallow (sheep fat), tea was blended with saw dust and sheep dung, Sulphuric acid diluted vinegar and chalk whitened diluted milk. Faded vegetables were treated with arsenate of copper to make them greener and under cooked bread was painted with lead chromate to make the crusts ‘golden’. Lead arsenate was used as a sweetener. Red lead was used to give substandard cheese a more ‘healthy’ colour. In the 19th early 19th Century the purchase of bread consumed between half and three quarters of the family income and a working man’s lunch typically consisted of an onion and a hunk of bread. Bread became the first food commodity to be quantitively and qualitatively regulated. Adulterated ( chalk, bone ash) or short weight bread earned the guilty baker: public humiliation (stocks), large fines, extended prison terms and in extreme cases flogging or hanging. Hence the ‘baker’s dozen’ for rolls to make sure there would be no short weight. The unregulated pursuit of wealth by private enterprise on the free market did not stop with the adulteration of food. The distribution of food was also an issue. During a famine in France (during the mid 18th Century) where death by starvation was endemic there were food riots in Paris when it was discovered that huge amounts of flour were being ground exceedingly fine and sold to the aristocracy to powder their faces, bodies and wigs at premium prices. During the Irish Potato Famine where thousands died of hunger and many more thousands fled the country (to die in the labour camps building the American railroads) enterprising business men were selling huge amounts of food, grown in Ireland by the starving peasants, to England and France for huge profits. It was only because of fears of insurrection, protests from the protestant churches and the emerging middleclass that the government stepped in and began to buy food for the relief of the starving. This support developed over time to the financial safety net today, put in place by government to support the poor and the unemployed, that these days are deemed necessary by the business community, to keep labour costs down. Then of course there are public liability and OH&S regulations to dog anyone trying to do anything in the public domain from holding a soccer match to cleaning windows. These days regulation is often driven in response to the activities and the avarice of the legal profession who will launch speculative claims for damages or compensation for a fat percentage at the drop of a hat. Providing you have a hat dropping ticket. It wasn’t always that way though. Back in the days of the glorious British Empire a completely unregulated labour market left a large percentage of the population as working poor who laboured in conditions that these days would cause an outcry if inflicted on animals let alone people. It is hard to imagine, but working poor conditions in the slums of 19th Century Britain were worse than currently prevail in the U.S. and most third world countries. The agricultural workers had been driven off their land when the old feudal system had been overcome by developments in farming methods involving the creation of large farming estates typically run by aristocratic families. The displaced rural workforce fled to the towns and cities where the same aristocrats that had dispossessed them financed the building of huge ramshackle slums to house them. These tenements usually were without running water or any sort of sewage disposal. These places immediately became sinks of sickness and poverty. Meanwhile a rising middle class, often funded by aristocratic venture capital was building factories based around the invention of new machines and powered by the new steam engines. Typically work started at 5.30 in the morning and went on till 10.30 at night. Supplied meals were usually watery porridge in the morning with a thin broth for lunch and dinner. Breakdowns were frequent and the machines required much maintenance that was carried out while the machines were still running: causing maiming and injury to the children often as young as 3 who were employed to do this. They were small enough to squeeze into places that adults could not go and their small nimble fingers could do finer tasks than grown up workers. It was this economic activity coupled with the slaving colonies in the West Indies and Nth America that created the British Empire and made the City of London the biggest wealthiest city in the world. Along with the invention of machines that allowed us to dominate our environment there were also communication inventions like the mechanical printing press, telegraph and the camera that helped create the conditions for an amelioration of the terrible suffering that was the lot of most of the population. Increasingly complex machines and infra structure created a need for workers to be better educated. This was undertaken reluctantly and as was feared resulted in the workers and sections of the managerial class begin to organize to try and put a stop to the inhuman exploitation of adults and children. So, first friendly societies, then unions came into existence – not to argue for a few extra dollars an hour in the take home pay but to argue for being paid by the hourand at a rate that could reasonably sustain the worker and his family in conditions that would not cripple and kill by aged thirty. So with the birth of the Labour Movement governments had (often reluctantly) to take notice of and enact legislation to protect the population from exploitation by the rich and powerful Of course this was not by any means 100 percent successful. In the early twentieth century an enterprising engineer called Thomas Mitchley Jnr developed a compound called Tetraethyle Lead. It was found to reduce engine knock in car engines. Dispite the wide spread scientific knowledge that lead was a neurotoxin that could cause amongst other things: blindness, seizures, insanity and kidney failure he went ahead in partnership with Dupont and General Motors and created and marketed leaded petrol. Almost immediately workers at the plants and people in the surrounding areas began to show symptoms of lead poisoning. However the enterprise was so profitable that scientists and public figures were suborned with promises of huge salaries and retainers to declare lead safe. Thomas Mitchley himself after recovering from a dose of lead poisoning held press conferences where he washed his hands in the toxic chemical to ‘prove’ it was safe – such is the lure of wealth. It took the selfless and determined campaigning of an environmental scientist called Clare Paterson who over more than twenty years identified the ubiquity of lead in our environment, it’s cause by leaded petrol and campaigned to have it removed. He was at the start almost universally ignored and later suffered a ceaseless bombardment of misinformation, public abuse and ridicule by the paid lackeys of the big corporations. It was only relatively recently that the scientific evidence became so overwhelming that governments were forced to regulate lead out of petrol. It is interesting to note that Thomas Mitchley went on to discover and develop CFC’s. Minchley is almost unknown by the general public but probably had a more lasting and damaging effect on the planet and its population of living things than most of our more high profile generals, politicians and corporations. One is reminded of the current debate centred around global warning where Exxon-Mobil are the primary source of funding for the ‘scientific’ organizations whose members purvey misinformation to the general public about ‘uncertainty’ surrounding human causes of global warming. If you believe that global warming is a myth or part of a natural cycle unaffected by human intervention then you are a living proof of how effective Exxon Mobil’s campaign has been. It is enforced government laws and regulations that are the foundation of socio-economic equity. It is the tireless work of unions and social activists that tries to insure the government is mindful of our society as a whole not just the persistent, wealthy and largely unscrupulous lobbying of large corporations trying to insure additional short term wealth for their shareholders. ‘Think global act neighborly’ is an interesting variation on the old cliché. We need government regulation to protect the bulk of the population from the predatory few. This becomes increasingly more necessary and more difficult as everything gets bigger. As business enterprises and political units get bigger those at the top become increasingly buffered from the effects of their decisions. Feedback breaks down. Regulations become more effective and equitable if the people drafting the regulations and enforcing them are themselves effected by those regulations. This can only really happen in small socio-political units. ( ‘Small is Beautiful’ by EF Schumacher back in the seventies and more recently (2010) Bill McKibben’s ‘Eaarth’ talks to this subject with great persuasion.) For example when the shires were amalgamated under Kennet it was done purely on a population/income basis with little or no regard for the topography of the shires or the well being of the inhabitants. Jeff Kennet was, after all, a free marketeer. East Gippsland Shire is a prime exemplar. Here is a small example that makes the point. Children’s playgrounds have to be built to a certain regulated standard to ensure the safety of our children. East Gippsland Shire recently replaced the children’s playgrounds to comply with those regulations. They build an extensive playground in the caravan park for use of the tourists in the summer and replaced an extensive all ages playground adjacent to the Mudbrick with one designed for kindergarten/toddlers. Previously older children played all the year around on this playground while events were being held at the Mudbrick, afterschool and at the weekends. We now have a perfectly regulated safe set of playgrounds that are hardly ever used by the children of this community, while before we had slightly unsafe playgrounds being used all the time. This is because our regulating body is 300 km away and their children do not play in Mallacoota. We need government regulations to protect us from exploitation and our own ignorance but regulations need to be enforced locally by local people who are affected by the enforcement.