Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

'Quite Good Theatre'? the Productivity Commission and Architectural Regulation

Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

'Quite Good Theatre'? the Productivity Commission and Architectural Regulation

Article excerpt

Abstract

The Inquiry into architectural regulation was the first national, public review of the regulation of a profession under National Competition Policy. Architects urged maintenance of regulation; the Productivity Commission, equally predictable, found there was insufficient public benefit to justify it. The Inquiry showed the utility of the Policy for analysing professional regulation but also its limits. The architects 'strategy of side-stepping State review in favour of a national review managed to delay reform. There remained significant, unresolved problems for professions regulated by the state.

Introduction

When we look for reforms to professions through application of the National Competition Policy (NCP), the story is not sanguine: where is the deregulation foreshadowed in the early days? The record of legislation review shows how significant the obstacles, how strong and embedded professions and their regulation are in society. At an early hearing, one Commissioner, Judith Sloan, reminded a witness, 'this is the result of Hilmer.... Watch this space', but when the inquiry was first mooted, the Victorian registration board Chairman said, 'Hilmer-schmilmer, we've heard it all before'. (1)

In the 2000 Commission Inquiry into architectural regulation, architects argued that contribution to civic amenity distinguished them from non-architect competitors. Regulation signalled education, service quality, ethical commitment and independent scrutiny of behaviour. It symbolized state recognition of providers for whom there were no equivalent substitutes. It redressed information asymmetry and search costs. Improvement would come through recognizing architecture as a profession under a national regime.

For the Commission, civic amenity was not relevant, benefit from legislation not a given. Architects must establish that regulation's benefits exceeded costs of imposition, otherwise repeal should follow; comparable professions managed without regulation; consumer protection laws met information and complaint needs; deregulation would stimulate architects to compete, to everyone's benefit.

The Inquiry revealed both value and limitations in NCP legislation review. It was an opportunity to probe a profession's assumptions. Could it evaluate legislative consistency, objectives and efficacy, and generate insight into issues of power? Yet the Commission interpreted the Terms of Reference narrowly, confining itself to economic issues. The Commission told its reform story, but could not convince architects; architects told stories of symbolism and identity the Commission disregarded. The Commission fell back on its principles; architects returned to 'in-house' development of a national para-legislative regime. It was a stalemate.

This paper explores how a promising beginning, a cogent analytical framework and an institutional reviewer were insufficient to ensure reform of a profession's regulation.

Background to the Inquiry

In 1992 the Trade Practices Commission (TPC) recommended substantial restructuring of State Architects Acts and a year later the Hilmer Report questioned such legislation. (2) Registration boards began setting their house in order: mutual recognition was introduced, including recognition of New Zealand registration. A peak body, the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia (AACA), produced legislative guidelines. Victoria made its regulations TPC-compliant.

A Northern Territory review recommended repeal of the Act there, (3) alarming other boards, who wanted a review forum that favoured retention of Acts. Regulator consensus was that reviews in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia presented no difficulty, but in 1998 the Victorian Government announced a joint review of architects and building legislation. The Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) and AACA therefore sought to allay any threat through a national review, despite absence of Commonwealth power and uncertainty about the reviewer's identity; indeed, the Chairman of the National Competition Council 'could not believe his ears' when he was asked to support the request. …

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