There is a PhD thesis waiting to be written some day about how Australia came to be the world’s number one nanny state; how a country that was once renowned for rugged individualism capitulated to puritanism with barely a whimper. It’s a country for which I have a great deal of fondness although—perhaps crucially—I haven’t been there for several years.
The Australians have been in the news after making the decision to wrap cigarettes in olive coloured plain packages (indirectly leading to some of the most pathetic journalism I've ever seen). With tangible patriotic pride, campaigners plain packaging as a world first, and so it is, but it only scratches the surface of the plans Australia’s public health lobby have in store.
A few weeks ago, the Preventative Health Taskforce published a report which launched a “crackdown” (their word) on drinking, smoking and the eating of “energy-dense, nutrient poor” food. This report made 122 recommendations, called for 26 new laws and proposed establishing seven new agencies to change the behaviour of Australians (summary here). To take just a few examples related to tobacco, they called for the price of 30 cigarettes to rise to “at least $20” (£13) by 2013, for a ban on duty free sales, a ban on vending machines and a ban on smoking in a host of places including multi-unit apartments, private vehicles and “outdoors where people gather or move in close proximity.” They even contemplate a ban on filters (?!) and the prohibition of additives that enhance the palatability of cigarettes.
As in so many countries, Australia’s anti-smoking campaign has acted as a trojan horse in the effort to fundamentally change the relationship between citizen and state. By no means does it end with tobacco. The Taskforce also wants to ban drinks advertising during programmes that are watched by people under 25 - a category so broad as to include virtually everything - and calls for graphic warnings similar to those now found on cigarette packs to be put on bottles of beer. It also wants the government to establish “appropriate portion sizes” for meals, to tax food that is deemed unhealthy and to hand out cash bonuses to those who meet the state’s criteria of a healthy lifestyle.
Coming on the back of a tobacco display ban and the aforementioned plain packaging ruse, it is no wonder that a recent survey found that 55% of Australians believe their country has become a nanny state. An ever greater majority - 73% - think the government is too busy micromanaging people’s lives to address important issues.
Mike Daube, the Deputy Chair of the Preventative Health Taskforce, hates the phrase “nanny state” and has described the term as a “smokescreen”. But then—in the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davis—he would, wouldn’t he? Daube was director of ASH (UK) for much of the 1970s before moving to Western Australia where he initiated some of the most draconian anti-tobacco policies in the world, including various outdoor smoking bans. He might not like the term “nanny state” but it resonates with people because it rings true with their experience of being treated like infants.
It is the professed concern for the well-being of children that props up so much authoritarian legislation in both hemispheres. This does not just apply to smoking, nor even health issues in general. Australia has a unenviable record of internet censorship, for example, and a national website filter has been proposed to protect children from pornography and gambling. As Dick Puddlecote recently showed on his blog, more video games are banned Down Under than in dictatorial China*. And so if you, as an Australian adult, want to exercise your right to gamble and play violent video games, that’s just too bad. The rights of some hypothetical teenager to enjoy freedom from grown up pursuits trump your own rights to pursue them.
There is something deeply unsavoury about exploiting people’s natural concern for children as a means of passing illiberal legislation. Plans are afoot in Australia to ban alcoholic energy drinks because, it is claimed, some underage drinkers like them. Campaigners are particularly worried about the “colourful packaging” these drinks come in; an ominous statement from the land of plain packaging. Banning a concoction that any fool with access to alcohol and Red Bull can make themselves would be a futile exercise in gesture politics. The practical failure of such policies is so routine as to be hardly worth mentioning. The much larger point is that a ban on these drinks punishes adults for the failure of government to enforce the laws that already exist.
The fact that adults enjoy these drinks seems to matter less than the possibility that teenagers might buy them illicitly. In the name of protecting the kiddies, legitimate products which are overwhelmingly consumed by adults must be taxed, hidden away and banned entirely. When adults are forced to live by the same rules as children, “nanny state” seems to be not just apt, but rather generous.
* Update: Rory has pointed out that games consoles are banned in China so the comparison with Oz is a tad spurious here. Clearly the Aussies have some way to go to catch up the communists.
The Chinese are no strangers to the same think-of-the-children rhetoric, of course:
“Consoles have been banned in China since the year 2000,” Lisa Hanson from market researcher Niko Partners tells Kotaku. "The government thought that was the best way to protect Chinese youth from wasting their minds on video games, after a parental outcry."