EVAN WILLIAMS. Nanny state? Bring it on!

Sep 22, 2017

Among conservatives, the term “nanny state” is enjoying a new vogue.  And its use is by no means confined to a handful of loony libertarians.  Any action intended to protect personal safety or curb anti-social behaviour is now seen as evidence of the dreaded nanny state taking over our lives.  Gun-control laws, mandatory helmets for bike riders, plain packaging on cigarettes, compulsory vaccination for kids – all are part of a sinister left-wing plot to destroy capitalism.

Many attribute the term “nanny state” to the British Conservative politician Iain Macleod, writing in the English Spectator in the sixties.  I was working in Fleet Street in those days, reporting on the 1964 British general election for the Sydney Morning Herald, and remember the Labour leader, Harold Wilson, telling us that voters were waiting for the “smack of firm government” after 13 years of Tory rule.  It was an odd phrase for a Labour leader, with its reminder of that quintessentially British upper-class institution, the nanny disciplinarian, immortalised by A.A. Milne in his Christopher Robin verses. You rarely hear Australians use the word “nanny” to refer to a paid child-minder, but thanks to our politicians, we know all the perils of the nanny state.

For this voter, the more nannies the better.  A generation ago, there were no nanny-state scare campaigns.  Apart from car manufacturers warning of “added costs” and higher prices, no one seriously objected when seat-belts were made compulsory in the 1960s, or when random breath-testing was introduced  in Victoria in 1976.  There can be no doubt that the nanny state has saved countless lives.  Yet when tougher lock-out laws for pubs and clubs were introduced last year in response to a rise in alcohol-related violence in Kings Cross, many predicted the end of Sydney’s vibrant night life – as if no one could possibly have a good night out if they couldn’t booze after 3 o’clock in the morning.  Despite a fall in fatal assaults after the new laws were enforced, Mike Baird’s coalition government yielded to pressure from the liquor lobby to water the laws down.

The world’s leading nanny state was once said to be Singapore, under former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.  Lee’s government was notorious for laws and regulations controlling personal behaviour. “If Singapore is a nanny state,” said Lee in an interview in 1987, “then I am proud to have fostered one.”  Whatever blame or credit may attach to Singapore’s nanny-in-chief, the country was one of the most prosperous in South-east Asia.  “I am often accused,” said Lee, “of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yet, if I had not, we wouldn’t be here today …  We would not have made economic progress if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who you neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use.  We decided what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

I don’t think Malcolm Turnbull would go that far. But many on the right of his party aren’t content with limiting the power of the state.  They would prefer to abolish the state altogether.  In their 2014 book, The Fourth Revolution, John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge portrayed US society as a bloated monster, taxing itself like a small-government country and spending like a big-government one.  Branding the state “an omnipresent nanny”, they called for a return to a golden age of “personal responsibility” when people looked after their lives without relying on government support .  (One description of that so-called golden age was “survival of the fittest”.)

To his credit, we don’t hear Malcolm Turnbull complaining about the nanny state.  I suspect he secretly embraces it.  The Malcolm we remember was a believer in progress and reform – on everything from climate change, to the republic, to same-sex marriage. Now, after two years in government, he’s discovered how hard it is, with a flawed federal system, a divided coalition and a dysfunctional Senate, to achieve change of any value.  Our problem, as Ross Gittins wrote recently in Fairfax Media, is not “fake news” , but fake government.  Driven by polls, focus groups and their instinct for survival, governments are more and more reluctant to govern.

So here’s a suggestion for Malcolm.  If he wants to rally his divided party behind a worthy cause, let him tackle the obesity crisis – the new scourge of our age, taking lives, contributing to heart disease, diabetes and dementia, and adding billions to the nation’s health costs.  Only the most determined nanny can beat it. A measure as simple and obvious as a sugar tax on processed foods – supported by the vast majority of doctors and many heath organisations – is still sitting in the too-hard basket.  Yet a sugar tax isn’t too much for the Brits. A “soft drinks industry levy” is due to be introduced in the UK next year, despite being described by one Tory MP as ”patronising, regressive, and the nanny state at its worst.”

Along with the US, Britain and poor old Singapore, Australia has the highest rate of obesity in the world.  So a fully-armed nanny state would do more than tax sugar.  It would ban a lot of junk food altogether, supervise fast-food outlets and get serious about reducing junk-food ads on TV.  There’d be resistance from sugar farmers, fast-food chains the big-name supermarkets that contribute to Liberal coffers.  But the stakes are high.  I remember when Oslo lunches were handed out to State school kids during the war years.  Remember the Oslo lunch – a plain salad sandwich, an apple or an orange, and a half-pint bottle of milk (often warm from standing in the sun)?  In Hay, in western NSW, a long way from Norway, my mum used to cut sandwiches for Oslo lunches at the primary school while dad was away in an army camp.  And we thought we were doing it tough.

Good nannies must also ensure that we get more exercise – compulsory sport in schools, more parks and  playing fields in crowded suburbs, more commuter car-parks to get people onto public transport.   A publicly-funded campaign to encourage exercise would pay off.  And it could be fun.

I put the idea once to Bob Carr when I worked  for him.  Bob, a teetotaller, used to jog every morning around the sand-hills near his home and did press-ups in his office. “Bob,” I said, “you’re a fitness fanatic, and you’d be the perfect role-model for a TV campaign promoting preventive medicine.  Physical jerks, moderate drinking, regular jogging, maybe just walking the dog.  People would take notice of you and it could make a difference.”

But Bob had other things on his mind, and somehow I can’t see Gladys Berejiklian in the role.  So there’s still plenty for nannies to do.  How about banning mobile phones in schools?  Kids might pay more attention to their teachers.  They might even learn something.

Evan Williams is a former newspaper editor and Walkley Award-winning journalist.  He wrote speeches for Gough Whitlam and several state premiers, and ran the NSW government’s cultural sector from 1977 to 2001.  He wrote film review for the Australian for 33 years.

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