Thursday, 19 May 2011

Australia - what went wrong?

[Published today at the Free Society]

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."


Anonymous said...

I've read somewhere that Australia censors a large number of web pages.

Pat Nurse MA said...

Please don't be so gentle Chris and call that country excatly what it is - Australia is a fascist country that targets selective groups to fit its own ideal of the perfect health race.

Angry Exile said...

Re: the computer games. Not a good comparison with the anti-baccy and booze nannying. Firstly it's got a lot of basis in religion and the concern seems to be that shooting the face off a zombie is bad for the soul, as well as the fact that I might become unable to distinguish between a zombie and the postman and give him both barrels of the Beretta. This is just as much bollocks as the idea that plain packs at $20 each won't send everyone off to buy a bag of chop-chop and some rizlas for half the price, but I think it's worth mentioning that it is at least coming from a slightly different place. Second, it's had an unintended consequence in that games that the censor deems insufficiently violent to endanger my postman have to go in the MA15+ category because that's the highest there is, while the very same games are restricted to 17 or 18 and up in most of the rest of the world. Third, and in response to the second point, Australia seems likely to move in the right direction. South Australia's previous Attorney-General who had been blocking an RA18+ category for games has been gone for a year or so and his successor wants it urgently so games aimed at adults can finally be prevented from being sold to 15 year olds. A roundabout route to sanity perhaps, but any port in a storm. The tobacco and alcohol wowsers don't seem likely to find any route at all and probably need to be led away by kind people in white coats who carry handcuffs, just in case.

Anonymous said...

The Australian government makes $5billion a year from smoking taxes. They've dropped their earlier argument that smokers should pay for their own healthcare via the smoking tax, because now smokers pay for healthcare for everyone. You'd think we'd get a pat on the back.

The government first removed the nicotene contained in each brand and type of smoke from packaging to confuse smokers who tried to reduce their habit gradually by dropping to a lower nicotene level or a cheaper smoke. None of the expensive products to help give up smoking are subsidised, so the government wants to keep smokers as a cash-cow. Recently they legislated so that sellers have to hide packets of smokes behind white cupboard doors, so children won't see them (!)

The marginalisation of smokers now means that non-smokers feel free to be downright rude to anyone having a smoke, so the government's campaign has certainly brainwashed most of their citizens. But smoking is a completely legal pastime which pays the country's health bill.

Tax on smokes in Australia has reached 78% of the retail price, and a carton (for most smokers, a week's supply) costs over $100. Considering that the highest number of smokers are people with a mental illness and the homeless, the financial and personal stress the government has imposed on the poorest of the poor is indecent.

nisakiman said...

Unless there is a revolution, I fear Australia is a lost cause. What was once a beacon of Political Incorrectness has gone full circle, and the urban population, which makes up the majority, are now complicit in the creeping destruction of the basic freedoms once taken for granted. When you have a tame MSM, it's easy to brainwash the proletariat.

Anonymous said...

Like US & UK,Australia belongs to the anglosaxon territory and is one of the first to impose draconian measures on the TC movement

In contrast, countries like Germany,Netherlands and Japan - renowned for the discipline character of their citizens - are not so stringent

Why is that? Why one block of countries is more susceptible and the other is not?

We know from your book Chris that the Tobacco/Alcohol movement initiated in US, but what else can we learn from anthropography in regards to that matter?

Christopher Snowdon said...


There are a few theories about this. Religion and history offer the best pointers, I think. Protestant countries are generally the worst offenders (esp. Anglo nations and Scandinavia), whereas countries with a recent(ish) history of fascism/communism tend to be more liberal on social freedoms as a reaction to their past (Germany, Eastern Europe, Japan, Portugal).

Generally it is the countries which had temperance movements in the 19th century who are least liberal on drinking, smoking, drugs etc. today. It is not quite as simple as that, of course. It has been argued that Germany and Denmark, for example, escaped a major temperance movement because they practised a different sort of Protestantism.

George Speller said...

Maybe if Oz is the worst it'll be first to go . . . . .

Ian B said...

The "Anglosaxon territory" thing is simply explained by history. There was a massive puritan revival, beginning in England, in the 18th century as a reaction against the liberal "Restoration" period, which spread throughout the anglosphere; and which created, by the mid 19th century, the Victorian Values System.

The key element was that it was "post-millennialist". They believed that Jesus would return to Earth only after the establishment of the Kingdom Of God by man; that is by the purging of immorality and ungodliness from society. So they set to purging us of our sins (drinking, gambling, catholicism, sex) and have been doing it ever since.

By the late C19, the Movement was switching to a more secular narrative, as the campaigns themselves assumed greater importance than the initial reason for them (Jesus) and so you ended up with the "secular" authoritarian "left"; the Progressives.

But that's how it happened anyway, and why this is a particular Anglosphere problem. The Victorian System set the "pursuit of virtue" as the key defining characteristic of anglosphere society, and it has been with us ever since. There was a partial return to pre-puritan liberalism in some areas in the 20th century, as the elites got more interested in Marxism and economics, but now the puritans are back in strength. This is effectively the Victorian Era 2.0; but this time they've got 200 years of campaigning and political experience behind them, far more money and far better organised governments, campaign networks, etc.

To call them "puritans" isn't merely a perjorative. It is an accurate historical description.

This is one reason that anglosphere types complaining about the EU and UN imposing things on us miss the point; the source of these campaigns is our own countries, reflected back from hegemonic institutions and globalised. Hence, e.g. leaving the EU wouldn't end the nanny state. It would probably intensify it, for us. But it would probably reduce its effect in other, non-anglo nations. I'm eager to leave the EU and UN not to save ourselves, but to save everyone else from us.

The USA by the way is the world leading puritan nation, for a couple of reasons; firstly because it got religion even worse than the rest of us during the revivals; secondly because it is the economic and military superpower. Although Aus, and the UK, often run ahead of the USA in implementation of puritan laws, the USA is the primary source of e.g. temperance, censorship etc in terms of ideology and organisation. They actually have more trouble implementing in their own country, that's all; because the USA has that pesky Constitution and Bill of Rights whereas the rest of us are overtly elected dictatorships under the "parliamentary system".

Ian B said...

Rothbard presented a good primer on this- far from comprehensive and focussed on the USA but it's a nice start for understanding the pietist character of the anglosphere.

Anonymous said...

To those who support the 'no nanny state' campaign:

I know this might come as a shock to you all, but this is just the cigarette companies' ploy to make people think that the removal of cigarette branding is an act of stripping your rights to make bad decisions for yourself. It's perfectly fine if someone wants to smoke their life and lungs away but don't think that you have the right to do so at the expense of the Australian health system and tax payers' dollars. Your own meager contributions as a tax payer won't even begin to cover for it so don't even try to use it as justification.

There are a lot of other medical problems that people didn't sign up to that require precious funding. The government has every right to use any means necessary to minimise the significant financial and social burden that smoking has on the health care system. This is not a question of imposing a nanny state but it certainly divulges a lot about the juvenile state of mind of someone who chooses to see it that way. So suck it up, because branding or no branding, why the would you give a shit if you're determined to keep smoking anyhow. I can't fathom how one can one be so fucking ignorant as to not realise that their so called rights are just being used to booster the profits of huge multi-national, cancer feeding corporations. I know ignorance can be bliss sometimes, but you really are all truly dimwitted. I haven't enough pity for you all.

Christopher Snowdon said...

Anon (aren't they always?),

Read this and shut up...

"Tobacco tax revenue in 2004/05 exceeded tobacco-attributable costs borne by the public sector by over $3.5 billion. Of this surplus $2.7 billion accrued to the Commonwealth and around $800 million to state governments."

(p. 72; The costs of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug abuse to Australian society in 2004/05 David J. Collins, Macquarie University and Helen M. Lapsley)

Find some other excuse to justify your bigotry because costs to the health system don't cut it.

Anonymous said...

Well said Snowdon, thank you. Anonymous certainly 'lost it' when he/she started swearing, insisting we are all juveniles and that we are too dumb to know when the tobacco companies are ripping us off.

As stated earlier (and alluded to by you), in Australia the federal government collects 78% of the retail cost of smokes, so we smokers are paying for the whole health budget in the country! Anonymous needn't bother feeling 'pity' for us. Next time he/she goes to hospital or the doctor's, he/she might consider thanking us for directly subsidising his/her costs. You'd think we'd get a few thanks for our massive subsidy of their healthcare. Sheesh...