6 November, 1999

Brisbane, QLD, Australia

John Ray

Beating the Bureaucrats

Shortly after Joy and I got together, we combined our resources to buy a block of flats at 13 Wallis Pde., Bondi. We would have bought them around the beginning of 1978. We wanted to do them up and convert them to strata-title -- thus increasing their value. I had reorganized things in each of the four flats so that the laundry facilities were put into the bathrooms and got council approval to do that. I think that was the first and only time I ever sought Council approval for anything but the flats were to be strata-titled so I more or less had to.

When all the work had been done I had to get a council inspector to come out and certify that everything was now in order. When he saw the laundry facilities in each bathroom, however, he said: "Laundry facilities must include a washing machine. You need to have machines actually here to get approval and you haven't got them here." I said, "But the approval letter said nothing about that" He said, "Aha, but the approval says 'Subject to the provisions of Ordinance 70 under the Local Government Act' and Ordinance 70 lays down that laundry facilities must include a washing machine or copper".

He was right. The approval DID say 'Subject to the provisions of Ordinance 70'. Most people at that stage would have been mightily put out but would probably have caved in and bought washing machines for each of the four bathroom/laundries. I instead said, "But Ordinance 70 does not say that at all. It says only that you must have ”connections" for a washing machine or clothes boiler. Look it up if you doubt me."

You see, I had done my homework. I actually had bought a copy of Ordinance 70 and knew the relevant section of it quite well. I knew it better than he did. We had to go back to the Waverley Council Chambers so he could look his own copy of the ordinance up but final approval of the renovations ”was" entered that day.

Wasn't I a smart-arse? Officialdom uses a lot of bluff and you can beat them if you know what their regulations actually say. Most of the Statutes and Regulations can be bought quite easily from Government and legal bookshops but it is normally only lawyers who bother. But I can read as well as lawyers can (the statutes and ordinances are after all in English) so sometimes I do bother. It can pay very well to bother in that way. I also once owned a copy of the Income Tax Assessment Act and used that to some advantage too .

I think the first official document I ever bought was when I was just 18 and wanted to do Senior (the two final years of High©School) in one year. I bought a copy of the Senior Syllabus (i.e the official regulations for what the Senior Examination covers) and just learnt what it said you had to learn. What a pesky kid I must have been! Anyway, I did pass my Senior examination that year.

Buying a copy of ANY regulations that have an important bearing on your life is a rather good idea if you don't want to be at the total mercy of the bureaucrats. You CAN use their own regulations against them. It is actually amazing the daft things that the regulations sometimes say. Make that work for you rather than against you! What the regulations DON'T say is often more useful that what they do say.

A (possibly apocryphal) story that illustrates this concerns an Oxford University college that stipulated that students must wear a collar and tie to college dinners. Some students found this onerous and old-fashioned so looked at what the regulations actually said. Sure enough the only thing the regulations said about dress was that you had to wear a collar and tie. So that is what the students did: They wore a collar and tie but NO shirt, shoes or pants. It shook up the system enough to get new and less onerous regulations put in place.

Another occasion when I defeated officialdom via their own regulations was in 1996 when some busybody complained that I was running 24 Forest St. as a boarding house. I refused to allow the Brisbane City Council inspector who called any access to the premises but arranged to call at his office the next day to see what the regulations were that I was supposedly violating.

When I arrived I was shown regulations that said that a multiple dwelling needed a council permit. But what is a multiple dwelling? Being an academic, I saw the importance of defining your terms. In doing that, I noted that Council regulations only concern details of buildings, not who is allowed to live in them. And the section of the regulations he was relying on concerned tenements, which my building certainly was not. He didn't even know what a tenement was. I did. I had seen some in Glasgow. So I focused on that fact and pointed out that 24 Forest St was a simple suburban house with one bathroom and one kitchen which I shared with whoever else might happen to be there. In other words, however it might be used and by whom, it was NOT a multiple dwelling. It was a single dwelling. I was left alone after that. I made no admissions, true or untrue. I simply defeated them on a point of law. My reading of the regulations may not have been sufficient to defeat a QC but it sure defeated the bureaucrat I was dealing with. A bureaucratic mind is no match for a first-class mind, even if the bureaucratic mind is supposed to be an expert in the field concerned. Normally, all bureaucrats in fact know is their own bureaucratic practice.

About six months later the same council inspector responded to a complaint from a disgruntled female tenant about 19 Longwood st. She complained that it was not a registered block of flats. In Brisbane, blocks of flats have to be registered with the municipality. The inspector contacted me and I showed him around the place. He said that not much would be needed to get it registered and said he would call me back to make further arrangements. He called back a week or so later to make a time for another meeting but I said that I was busy that week and could he call back next week. He said he would but that was in fact the last I heard of him. He only wanted to enforce council regulations if it was not too much bother! You can make bureaucratic inertia work for you!

Having a legal mind also helped in 1999 when the Fire Brigade inspected my guest house at Ipswich and found various features that did not comply with their fire regulations. They listed the things that I had to fix in a letter to me. One of their requirements was that all fire-extinguisher brackets had to have a fire extinguisher in them. I did have one fire extinguisher bracket and the fire extinguisher originally in it had been stolen some time previously. Most people in the circumstances would have gone and got a replacement extinguisher. Because of my careful reading of the document, however, I did something quite different: I removed the fire-extinguisher bracket! When the fire officers later called on me they laughed but confirmed that what I had done was indeed legal and sufficient! A rather good example of bureaucratic madness perhaps but it saved me money. The building had a fire-hose anyway so my cleverness did not in fact compromise safety.