Thursday, 4 January 2018

There are regulations and regulations

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The 1984 Labour government set out to deregulate society. Roger Douglas (now Sir Roger) led the charge and not before time.

I remember back in the 1960’s, after seeing schnitzel steak in Australia, I decided to introduce it to our butchers shop in Masterton. Schnitzel was made from a thick flank of beef sliced thinly on the bacon slicer. Back then though we would get regular visits from inspectors from Wellington who checked to see that we were not deviating from the New Zealand standard specifications on meat products that were in booklet form and only occasionally updated.

Our man from the capital nearly had fit when he saw schnitzel steak and demanded that we withdraw it from sale immediately. I kid you not. At the time I was on the executive council of the NZ Meat Retailers Federation and fought through that body to have schnitzel included in the standard specifications. It took about eighteen months and New Zealanders were denied this delicacy for that period until it was finally included.

But it wasn’t just schnitzel.

We came up with all sorts of new cuts; Beef Olives, Steakettes, Canadian T-Bone Steak to name a few, but none of these could be marketed until we got them included in the book. You won’t believe this, but hamburgers were also outlawed. It was about 1973 before we were allowed to sell the patties. Up until then we could only sell the mince that you made them out of.

A previous Labour government, convinced that meat retailers were profiting too much from the sales of their product, decided to set the retail prices on all cuts of meat. At first this didn’t worry those of us who traded in the provinces. Our overheads were lower, access to fresh stock easier, and so the government calculated meat prices that had to suit the city meat retailers meant that the maximum allowable prices were well above what we were charging anyway.

But meat is a perishable product and you need to sell all cuts in equal proportions. Sometimes you needed to price something up because demand was outstripping supply and drop the price on another cut so that at the end of the week your stocks had run out at a comparable rate. No good having a whole lot of forequarters of lamb left over without the corresponding number of lamb legs, if you know what I mean.

Price control took away that flexibility and made our balancing act almost impossible. Inspectors from Wellington checked on us regularly, always arriving unannounced of course, and prosecutions were handed out to the non-compliers.

Mercifully for retailers that sort of nonsense is now a thing of the past and the market rules. You overprice your product at your peril.

Some of you would perhaps recall Geoffrey Palmer declaring war on “quangos” years ago. These little beasties were government inspired committees set up to do a variety of projects or check on the progress of other government inspired committees. We never really found out how far he got in this battle, but it would be a safe bet that if he were to go through the exercise again today, another group of quangos will have replaced the last lot.

That’s how regulations work. Governments exist to pass laws. Laws require regulations and we deregulate and then regulate some more, to fill the vacuum caused by deregulation.

Local governments do the same, but at a more leisurely pace. Take the dog controls. Encouraged by parliament and then warmly embraced by local council’s a couple of decades ago now man’s best friend cannot roam in freedom with its owner, but must be leashed, and signs are stenciled on to our footpaths reminding us that’s dogs are not to set paw in the CBD.

In Britain no such regulations exist. Dog owners can take their dogs anywhere; on the trains, into cafes and pubs. They even let them sit beside you in restaurants. Despite this shockingly uncivilised behaviour, I suspect there will always be an England.

In recent years have come the ordinances that meant it is illegal to have a drink on the Wairarapa beaches and apparently all other beaches in this fair country on New Year’s Eve. I can’t think of a more ideal place to celebrate the Hogmanay, but local legislators just hate to see people enjoy themselves.

And so I was delighted to read about the group in the Coromandel this New Year who built a “sand sanctuary island” in the Tairua estuary claiming they were in international waters and therefore entitled to “knock back a few cold ones” without being chastised. Three of those involved were apparently Americans who were probably encouraged to think outside the square by their unorthodox President.

But don’t get me started on the Worksafe regulations that the National government introduced a couple of years ago. If only I’d had the foresight I would have invested in a scaffolding company and today I could afford to be sipping a latte in a posh London cafĂ© with our dog at my feet.

We will of course eventually regulate ourselves out of existence. The last person left to turn out the lights will likely be the great-great grandson of the man who used to chastise us for selling meat cuts that weren’t in the book.

Poor old Roger Douglas will be rolling over in his grave - and he’s not even dead yet!

“However harmless a thing is, if the law forbids it most people will think it is wrong.” - W. Somerset Maugham


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