- Date published:
1:45 pm, January 19th, 2018 - 22 comments
Categories: accountability, Economy, journalism, labour, national, Politics, same old national, spin - Tags: leaky buildings, memes, nanny state, welfare state
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.