It’s time to embrace nanny state

Written By: - Date published: 1:45 pm, January 19th, 2018 - 22 comments
Categories: accountability, Economy, journalism, labour, national, Politics, same old national, spin - Tags: , , ,

Rather than apologise, it’s time the Left and the new government embraced “nanny state” as a positive, just as the gay community claimed the previously pejorative term “queer”

Nanny state has been a powerful, effective term permitting initiatives to reduce behaviour that is harmful to individuals and costly to the state, to be unthinkingly dismissed as intrusive.

The phrase instantly conjures an image of an over-protective nanny that does not allow the child (individual) to do what it wants.

It epitomises the difference between the Left, which wants to promote initiatives for the greater good and the Right, which wants people to take individual responsibility.

In reality, nanny state has produced so many policies, from fish quota to vaccination through to taxes on tobacco and alcohol, that have reduced injuries, illnesses and deaths by countless numbers. Such initiatives have saved billions upon billions of dollars.

Nanny state lies behind the welfare state – providing universal access to pensions, unemployment, invalid and sickness benefits, and state housing to those individuals that couldn’t or wouldn’t adequately provide for themselves.

Initiated by the Labour Government in response to the catastrophic failure of capitalism and the free market during the 1930s Great Depression, the idea that the state assumes responsibility for the protection and promotion of the social security of its citizens has been accepted by all successive New Zealand governments, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Related to the development of the welfare state, led mostly, but entirely by the Left, has been the development of regulation – rules and standards to control the excesses of capitalism and to promote health and safety in such areas as buildings, hospitals and consumer products.

The New Right and Monetarists, ironically led in this country by former Labour Party Finance Minister Sir Roger Douglas, have since the 1980s argued the welfare state has over-reached, deterring self-reliance.
They have, with various degrees of success, wound back the welfare state and regulation. The development of effective, shorthand terms, such as “nanny state”, have been vital in winning over public attitudes to tar many sensible measures to improve life, as intrusive.

Helen Clark’s government was derided for proposals to limit the size of shower heads or banning incandescent light bulbs (something most other Western nations have done leaving New Zealand now out of touch).
Ironically, dozens of initiatives by the Key-English National government of the previous nine years were also deemed “nanny state”.

In an article headlined, “the return of Nanny State”, the NZ Herald in 2013 noted National

…has passed or proposed regulations which limit the way Kiwis can drive, shop, drink, smoke, fish or hunt.

National in government was unable to avoid promoting perfectly sensible measures such as banning cellphone use while driving. Political commentator Dr Bryce Edwards said such measures were even more damaging for conservative governments because they preached the importance of personal responsibility.

National campaigned hard using that term Nanny State, so it is incredibly ironic to see so many policy innovations that might also be in that category.

Labour even attacked then Social Development Minister Paula Bennett, for reaching too far into poorer families’ lives by forcing beneficiaries to enrol their children in early childhood education or risk losing their benefit – effectively removing their choice on educating their kids.

Mrs Bennett responded:

I have no desire to go into people’s homes and tell them what to do, but I do have an interest in our children getting the best possible start in life.

Her argument was perfectly valid and is similarly applicable for almost all nanny state measures.

While the Key-English government was relatively busy with “nanny state” measures, like earlier conservative governments, its main bent was in the opposite direction – deregulation.

But far from saving money, many of these measures, and those from similarly-inclined previous governments, cost the country tens of billions of dollars, to say nothing of dozens of lives.

The leaky homes fiasco cost the country by various estimates between $11 billion and $22 billion – not counting considerable health costs and untold mental anguish.

Pike River, the Rena sinking, the kiwifruit PVA disease, varroa mite infestation, the finance companies collapse all had their genesis in deregulation. The so-called party of good economic management has cost the country even more than the Christchurch earthquake by doing away with “nanny state” regulations that imposed reasonable control on many behaviours.

The question is, how is the new Government going to claim the “nanny state” tag as a positive? The gay community took control of “queer” as a reminder of how many in the community perceived gays.

Nanny state will undoubtedly arise over measures to combat the obesity epidemic. Measures, such as the introduction of compulsory seat belt use to fight the catastrophic road toll of the 1970s, now seen as totally sensible, were bitterly opposed by sections of society. The introduction of a sugar tax, or the re-introduction of sensible food for schools, idiotically ditched by National, will meet similar resistance.

It will be important for the new government to frame such measures in terms of the economic benefits – for example, the huge cost savings of reducing obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

But equally, the government will have to front-foot public debate, not be apologetic and be armed, just like a good nanny, with the full gamut or arguments of why an initiative is needed.

The implementation of multitudes of nanny state measures from vaccinations to limiting tobacco advertising and sales is the reason why life for most of us is no longer, in Thomas Hobbes’ words, “nasty, short and brutish”. Life expectancy in New Zealand has increased 10 years over the last three decades, mostly thanks to nanny state measures.

We should celebrate our nanny state and not apologise for it.


Simon Louisson is a retired journalist who reported for The Wall Street Journal, AP Dow Jones Newswires, New Zealand Press Association and Reuters and briefly was a political and media adviser to the Green Party.

22 comments on “It’s time to embrace nanny state”

  1. mickysavage 1

    Thanks Simon well said. Particularly apt given today’s big announcement!

  2. Ed 2

    Socialist and proud of it.

  3. Bill 3

    Nannies come in pairs though, right?

    Now sure, I’d prefer if both nannies were departed, and we were up and about on our own two collective feet.

    But they aren’t, and we’re not.

    So the question is about which one we’d rather was enabled to be up and about.

    One looks to kick us out, naked and vulnerable before various unstable and rapacious market forces, to sweep in to gather those poor wee poppets of the market up into her safe arms when they fall over.

    The other looks to sit in that there rocking chair with a big bloody shot gun firing warning shots over the head of those same market forces lest they be getting any odd ideas into their heads, while providing us with a reasonable degree of shelter and well being.

    Given I have no choice but to make a choice, I know which of the two I’d rather embrace.

    edit – just realised most people might immediately think of nanny as in au pair rather than as in grandmother. So just to clear that up. My comment is assuming nanny as in grandmother

  4. Ad 4

    Lovely, but now unrecoverable as a term.

    It will take more than one PM’s baby to turn the global tide even against the term “welfare”.

    Try a new term.

  5. mac1 5

    I have said for the three years that I have enjoyed superannuation that ‘I have been sucking on the teat of Nanny State.”

    As a Quaker i know the power of taking over a pejorative word (from grumpy magistrate Gervase Bennet in this case) and claiming it as a positive name.

    We should not tremble before our opponents but be proud of our welfare system. “Baah” to them, I say. Claim the name with pride, remembering the achievements of our nanny state.

  6. Carolyn_Nth 6

    Before the term “queer” was reclaimed, the movement reclaimed the word “gay” from one of its original and derogatory meanings.

    Originally “gay” meant “carefree”, “happy” or “bright and showy”.
    It was applied (usually negatively) to homosexual men in the 19th and early twentieth century.

    Later in the 20th century, as a homosexual movement developed, the word “gay” was reclaimed to apply to homosexuality, capitalising on its originally positive meaning.

    “Nanny” has a much more problematic history and connotations. Initially it meant “adult woman other than a mother” – the non mother who looked after children was called a nurse. Nannie became more a term associated with European empires and colonial societies. Thatcher started using the term “nanny state”.

    Basically, I’d go for a different term for a state that looks after all its people – social security state. “Welfare state” has some uses. Blairites tried replacing it or the nanny state connotations with the “enabling state” – that is quite strongly linked with soft neoliberalism.

    I would like to reclaim “socialism”.

    • Bill 6.1

      I would like to reclaim “socialism”.

      Rehabilitating the term would be nice…as long as it wasn’t appropriated by statists. Let them be content with “social democracy” as a counter to “liberal”, so that the term “socialist” retained its rightful position as referring to possible worlds beyond both states and markets.

  7. UncookedSelachimorpha 7

    The idea that we work together to build a state that looks after its citizens is a great one. What else is government for, if not for that??

    • Anon 7.1

      Voluntary communities can look after each other, state regulation can only control. The whole point of politics is people aren’t homogeneous, so why assume the exact same bureaucracy and regulation will work for everyone? And that’s ignoring that for the most part state help – in any of it’s various forms – is mostly only there on paper, not in practice.

  8. Incognito 8

    The previous government’s so-called deregulation was guided by neoliberal ideology and rather intricate & complex yet typical of all such governments. The core concept is to regulate and fence off so that free market forces have free reign and flow largely unencumbered by regulation. It is channelling rather but with appropriate controls in place. This is the free market paradox: it relies on involvement of and regulation by a strong centralised government. To optimise productivity for maximum short- & medium-term profit the (economic) system needs controls and safety mechanisms as (market) self-regulation and auto-feedback are inefficient crude mechanisms with sometimes considerable lag times that compound inefficiency and thus sub-optimal productivity. Only (a) central government can provide the fine-tuning mechanisms in a democratic setting.

    Rather than opting for “The Nanny State” I’d choose “The Mutual State”; it doesn’t have the ‘baggage’ of the “nanny” label and also puts more emphasis on the reciprocal (symbiotic, if you like) relationship between citizen and state – what can you do for the state and what can the state do for you.

    • NZJester 8.1

      They never put in a free market, the National Government put in a one-sided market that was far from free as they put in rules that heavily favored the employers and crippled the workers from being able to claim their fair share of the profits made.
      A free market on paper is a great system and would work well if all sides had equal power and everyone played fair. Unfortunately, in the real world, the free market system fails, again and again, to work without regulation due to the overriding greed of a few who find it very easy without regulation to manipulate the market to give themselves an ever-increasing share of the pie.
      The right love to call it Nanny State regulation to belittle it, but if they just played fair Nanny would not have to get involved in the argument and tell them to share the pie fairly with the others!

  9. Pat 9

    ‘Nanny State’ or ‘cradle to grave’?

    Reclaiming?…Its all been done before.

    http://sites.tepapa.govt.nz/sliceofheaven/web/html/socialwelfare.html

  10. tc 10

    Scandinavia shows the model can work even within an overall neoliberal global construct.

  11. David Mac 11

    I prefer to see the situation as a playing field.

    The people we asked to do the job mark out the lines on our playing field. Then we ask them to take up the whistle and referee our game using the rulebook we have collectively decided on.

    All players agree that we need a system to support those that for any reason can’t join us on the field.

    The person that feels under Nanny’s thumb need only stop creating reasons for the ref to blow the whistle. Stop striking their child and burning Edison bulbs of their own accord.

    Nanny and personal responsibility sharing a harmonious bed.

  12. Thinkerr 12

    The Gay and Queer terms were made acceptable during a time when the country/ world was in a particular mood towards civil liberties.

    If the left tried to do the same with Nanny State, there is a right wing army mobilised to attack it and a general populace not ready to embrace it.

    Lets NOT do this (sorry Jacinda)

  13. tracey 13

    Pretty sure gay now means bad amongst you ger people

    • Incognito 13.1

      I have noticed more & more people hitting the space bar instead of the button for the letter “n” 😉

      • Carolyn_Nth 13.1.1

        Ha! I was wondering who the ger people were…? I think they may be people I don’t like.

        it’s not just about changing words, it’s about changing concepts and perceptions – that’s a way bigger project.

      • tracey 13.1.2

        It does seem to have slipped into all my writing… used to be i just put tot he instead of to the

  14. Philg 14

    I would prefer the terms ‘Public Good’ to be reclaimed along with ‘Public Service ‘ or ‘ For the good of ALL people’.

  15. SPC 15

    Sure, a nanny would enable better support for the PM.

    A former Plunkett nurse initially, then later a student who covers the night shift (sleeping when they can).

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