IN AUSTRALIA, anyone who supports rules and regulations that make products safer or improve public health can expect to come under attack from critics arguing they're restricting freedom and turning the country into a "nanny state".
These "nanny state" critics are everywhere and they're superficially persuasive.
After all, who wants government to tell them how to live their lives? But scratch the surface and you'll discover nanny state critics are frequently backed by powerful vested interests, like the tobacco industry arguing against plain packaging on cigarettes, or the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) arguing against government per se.
Nanny state critics are almost always self-interested. They're rarely motivated by the freedoms they purport to defend. And invariably their arguments crumble under scrutiny.
I was a board member of Choice magazine for 20 years, and lost count of the number of times manufacturers staunchly resisted voluntarily making changes to their dangerous, ineffective or substandard products.
Changes to laws and regulations, mandatory product standards and public awareness campaigns have saved countless lives over the years:
- Before the advent of mandatory shatterproof safety glass for showers, many people suffered major lacerations and occasionally died after bathroom accidents;
- Before 2008, it was legal for fast-buck retailers to sell children's nightwear that could easily catch fire: many children were hideously burnt and scarred;
- Prior to the introduction of safety guidelines, at least three Australian children were reportedly disembowelled after sitting on swimming pool skimmer box covers shaped like children's potties.
With these, as with nearly every campaign to clip the wings of unethical manufacturers, there was protracted resistance.
Similar attacks once rained down on Edwin Chadwick, the architect of the first Public Health Act in England in 1848. He proposed the first regulatory measures to control overcrowding, quality of drinking water, sewage disposal and building standards.
In response, The Times thundered:
"We prefer to take our chance with cholera and the rest than be bullied into health. There is nothing a man hates so much as being cleansed against his will, or having his floors swept, his walls whitewashed, his pet dung heaps cleared away."
And yet, on the 150th anniversary of the Public Health Act, a British Medical Journal poll saw Chadwick's invention of civic hygiene, and all of its regulations, voted as the most significant advance in public health and medicine since 1840.
Next time you hear someone attack "the nanny state" for intruding on personal liberty or being a heinous burden on business, here's a long list of examples that show how nanny state coddlings and protections have paid off.
- Access to drugs: Drug scheduling
- Access to drugs: Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme
- Access to health care: Compulsory third party motor injury
- Access to health care: Medicare
- Alcohol control: Minimum legal drinking age
- Alcohol control: Responsible serving of alcohol
- Building standards: Balustrade and railing height regulations
- Building standards: Elevator, standards & inspection
- Building standards: Fire safety building regulations
- Building standards: Floor space provision (preventing overcrowding)
- Building standards: Mandatory smoke alarms
- Building standards: Mandatory swimming pool fences
- Building standards: Maximum water temperature regulation
- Building standards: Safety glass standards
- Building standards: Swimming pool skimmer box standards
- Building standards: Mandatory Residual Current Devices (electricity)
- Cancer control: Sunsmart regulations for schools and daycare
- Child protection: Background checks for staff working with children
- Child protection: Child pornography laws
- Child protection: Mandatory reporting of child protection incidents
We don't hear much from the IPA and its ilk on any of these because they are all immensely popular, taken-for granted safeguards on our health, safety and quality of life. Because of them, Australia is one of the healthiest nations on earth. And other countries are climbing over themselves to emulate many of these as best practice.
The writer is professor of public health at University of Sydney.
A longer version of this article, together with the full list of 150 laws of the nanny state, can be found on The Conversation (theconversation.edu.au), a website which carries analysis by academics and researchers in Australia.