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Why we need the ‘nanny state’

The concept of the ‘nanny state’ is used by dominant elements in our community to make governments reluctant to interfere in a way that a bossy ‘nanny’ would interfere with the child of an upper-class British family.

Only the wealthy have nannies. It is a concept that has come from them to avoid interference in their right to maintain their privileged status. For decades the term has been a favourite in tobacco-company campaigns against all forms of regulation of their industry.

As government agendas become more and more conservative, extremist views find ways to push even further to the right. The deployment of ‘nanny state’ rhetoric by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a right-wing think tank, has been picked up by the Liberal Democratic Party’s one member in the Senate. The idea is to reduce regulation to an absolute minimum.

The ‘nanny state’ concept is shallow, but has immediate appeal. It relies on the belief that freedom is being protected from interference. Whereas framing liberty as ‘freedom from domination’ provides a much greater comprehension of the concept. With this understanding, governments not only have a role in protecting ordinary people from domination, they have a responsibility.

The upper classes, the ultra-wealthy, global industry conglomerates and the already powerful do not need protection for their freedoms as they are invariably dominant.

The very powerful don’t want government interference. They have a reason to be afraid of the ‘nanny state’. For ordinary people, the ‘nanny state’ protects us from their domination, improves our health outcomes and ensures a more equitable society.

The ‘nanny state’ is a term that was coined in 1965 by a British columnist writing in The Spectator magazine who went under the pseudonym ‘Quoodle’. It is a term usually used in a pejorative way to discourage governments from introducing legislation or regulation that might undermine the power or actions of industry or individuals. It is invariably presented as an interference with the choices of ordinary people.

As chair of the Senate Economics References Committee, Senator Sam Dastyari is calling for submissions by August 24 to the Inquiry into Personal choice and community impacts, which was initiated by his libertarian colleague Senator David Leyonhjelm. The committee will not report until the middle of next year, in the shadow of a looming election?

There can be little doubt that Senator Leyonhjelm and the like-minded at the IPA will be vigorous in encouraging submissions to the inquiry. The IPA is already constantly using its Freedom Watch blog to attack a range of issues seeking a free and dominating hand for industry. Examples on the blog include plain packaging of tobacco, safer adventure playgrounds, restrictions to reduce the harm associated with alcohol, bicycle helmet laws, the junk food industry and e-cigarettes. Hopefully, there will be many pointing out the advantages of regulation.

The concept of liberty being conceived as freedom from domination comes from ANU and Princeton academic Philip Pettit in his 1997 book Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Pettit argues the concept comes from the founding fathers of the American Revolution. The concept has been bastardised by industrial leaders who want no interference in the way they accumulate capital and wealth.

The ‘nanny state’ has delivered a healthier Australia. Our longevity is amongst the top two or three in the world. We have clean water and sanitation. “Nanny state” legislation on seat belts, speed limits, drink-driving and safer vehicles means the road trauma and death rates are now akin to the same numbers as the 1930s (and this is not on a per capita or per vehicle rate).

‘Nanny’ governments have been responsible for vaccines, educating the masses, supporting the homeless and providing universal health care. There are countless more examples where we live in a safer, more civilised society because of regulation around electricity and other trades, food safety, financial management, social services and infectious disease regulation to name just a few.

As a last word, there is an irony in ‘Quoodle’ coining this term. In 1954, as British Health Minister, Iain MacLeod, smoked through a press conference on the dangers of smoking. He died of a heart attack at age 57.


This post originally appeared on CityNews, where Michael Moore is a regular political columnist.

Michael Moore

Michael Moore

Michael Moore is the CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia and is the Vice President/President Elect of the World Federation of Public Health Associations. He is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra, was formerly a teacher and consultant and served four terms as an elected member of the ACT Legislative Assembly from 1989 to 2001. Michael was Australia’s first independent Minister when he was appointed as Minister of Health and Community Care.

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