Last September, a 20-year-old man was retrieving a goose he had shot in Australia’s Northern Territory when a crocodile dragged him by his right arm into some wetlands with a view to eating him. Undaunted, the man poked the croc in the eyes and escaped. Covered in teeth and claw marks, he made his way to an outstation, medicated himself with Carlton Dry beer and was visibly intoxicated by the time the police arrived. Offered a lift to hospital by air ambulance, he insisted on driving instead.
Time magazine described this gentleman as the ‘world’s most Australian man’, but his no-nonsense outback spirit is becoming a remnant of the past in an increasingly risk-averse nanny state. A manically interventionist Labor government was removed from office in 2013 but the paternalism remains. Go to any Australian city and you will be surrounded by signs telling you what you can and can’t do. In Sydney, it is illegal to buy a shot of alcohol after midnight and those who want to smoke must not only go outside but also be seated. You can no longer buy a drink anywhere in Australia’s biggest city after 3am. Vaping is banned indoors in several states and it is illegal everywhere to sell e-cigarette fluid if it contains nicotine, which is rather the point of e-cigarette fluid.
It’s not just health and safety. In June, the Senate voted to tighten up the country’s notorious internet filter. Australia has the longest list of prohibited video games in the world (with the possible exception of China) and has banned more than 200 since March 2015. Other proposals that have not yet become law include breathalysing pedestrians and banning jogging at lunchtime.
One politician has had enough and has launched an official Senate inquiry into the nanny state. Senator David Leyonhjelm’s Inquiry into Personal Choice and Community Impacts will pay particular attention to alcohol, tobacco, e-cigarettes, marijuana, bicycle helmets, and censorship classifications, but he encourages Australians to come forward with information about ‘anything that restricts their personal choice’.
As the sole elected representative of the Liberal Democratic Party, the chances of Leyonhjelm’s investigation leading to far-reaching liberalisation are slim, but he believes that some reform is possible. ‘Australia has three levels of government, all of which like to meddle in our lives,’ he tells me, ‘so it’s no easy task to untangle all the legislation, but this is the first inquiry of its type in Australia and we are confident it will have a significant impact. The Senate inquiry will look at the impact of legislation restricting personal choices for “the individual’s own good” and make recommendations. This may lead to some legislation being repealed or amended.’
One man’s nanny state law is another man’s sensible regulation. How does he distinguish? ‘It can be a fine line,’ he concedes. ‘But broadly speaking, we define it as when someone restricts your personal choices — even though they affect no one else — for your own good. Australia and New Zealand are the only countries that have laws mandating the wearing of bicycle helmets, for example. Perhaps we need helmets, however, due to the risk of running into a sign telling us what we’re not allowed to do. People I know have been pulled over by motorcycle coppers with sirens blaring for not wearing helmets. It’s ridiculous.’
It is not just ridiculous, it is also counter-productive. After Sydney introduced a helmet law in 1991, the number of cyclists on the roads plummeted because many erstwhile cyclists couldn’t or wouldn’t buy a helmet. Research has shown that cycling becomes more dangerous when there are fewer bikes on the road and motorists tend to leave cyclists less room when they are wearing a helmet. The result? Fewer people got to enjoy the health benefits of cycling and there was a higher rate of accidents among those who remained.
Such unintended consequences are common, but the architects of the nanny state are never around to pick up the pieces. When the tax on alcopops was hiked up by 70 per cent in 2008, there was a wholly predictable rise in the sale of spirits and mixers. A few weeks ago, when the government of New South Wales banned smoking in outdoor dining areas of cafés and bars, owners responded by banning customers from eating outside, thereby turning dining areas into smoking areas. It is safe to presume that this was not the legislators’ intention, but then it wasn’t the intention of politicians in Victoria to spark a full-blown riot when they banned smoking in prisons a month ago. Nevertheless, that is what happened.
Australia’s intolerance of e-cigarettes is another example of paternalistic regulations backfiring. ‘There is a real problem with treating e-cigarettes in the same way as combustible tobacco,’ says Leyonhjelm. ‘Many people have been able to quit smoking using e-cigarettes, and a lot of public health advocates maintain that e-cigs are better quitting tools than patches or gum. Unfortunately, Australia’s public health establishment seems immune to evidence on this.’ As for smokers, they have become ‘pariahs who have virtually nowhere to smoke. Due to exorbitant taxes, Australia has the second most expensive cigarettes in the world after Norway. This can be a very significant burden for poorer families — it’s a regressive sin tax.’
How has it come to this? What happened to Australia’s shark-punching outlaw spirit? ‘Australians like to present themselves as rugged individualists, but the fact is it’d be against the law for Crocodile Dundee to use a knife to protect himself in Sydney. Australian governments at all levels suffer from the belief that whenever something bad happens that “something must be done”. We also have very effective lobbyists of all kinds who are always telling politicians that “something must be done”. There have always been libertarians in Australian politics, but no united voice to suggest that something need not be done. The result is that successive governments have done many things we don’t need and that restrict our personal choices.’
Leyonhjelm may be fighting a lost cause, but he is not alone in having become weary of his country’s relentless intrusion into personal lifestyles. A 2010 survey found that 55 per cent of Aussies thought their country had become a nanny state and 73 per cent felt that the government was too busy controlling people’s daily lives to deal with important issues such as crime and education (British public opinion is much the same). Leyonhjelm’s inquiry may or may not not lead to legislation being repealed but by putting the issue under the microscope, he will require advocates for greater regulation to justify themselves. Agents of the nanny state jump from one campaign to another without making any serious attempt to assess the costs and benefits of the mountain of legislation they have already created. Thanks to Leyonhjelm, they will now be asked to reflect on what they have done.