Australia: the world leader in illiberalism

From bans on video games to drinks advertising, Australia has become the world’s number one nanny state.

Christopher Snowdon

Topics Politics

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.

The Australians were recently in the news after making the decision to wrap cigarettes in olive-coloured plain packages. With tangible patriotic pride, campaigners claimed this 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.

Last week, the Preventative Health Taskforce published a report which, in its words, launched a ‘crackdown’ 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. To take just a few examples related to tobacco, the Taskforce 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 every programme – 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 per cent of Australians believe their country has become a nanny state. An even greater majority – 73 per cent – thinks 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 he would, wouldn’t he? Daube was director of the UK anti-smoking group ASH 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. It also has a longer list of banned video games than any other Western democracy. 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 that are overwhelmingly consumed by adults must be punitively taxed, hidden away or 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.

Christopher J Snowdon is the author of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking, available from his website here. This article was first published on the Free Society website.

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Topics Politics


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