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Wednesday, 16 September 2015
Page: 6977


Senator LEYONHJELM (New South Wales) (13:35): I would like to clear up some confusion. First I am going to answer a question that has come my way a lot in recent times: 'What is the nanny state?' Next I am going to outline the origin of the phrase. At its core, the nanny state involves enacting laws and enforcing policies that interfere with or manage personal choices when the only consideration is the individual's own good. This is distinct from public health interventions that address public problems such as product safety, sanitation, vaccines and water quality. These are not nanny state laws. They are not directed at making individuals live their lives according to a certain set of rules or a certain standard.

A good example of nanny state intervention can be seen in the case of obesity. If you eat too much and get fat, that is your problem. It may be unwise, but it is not the government's business whether you eat too much and get fat. You are the one affected, and the costs you incur are private. The distress and grief of those who choose to be around you may be a consequence of that choice, but it is a private matter between you and your loved ones. And if governments make an unconditional and unsolicited commitment to pay your health costs, that simply indicates that governments are reckless with the money of taxpayers. This recklessness does not justify further incursions into our lives. Two wrongs do not make a right.

The Senate Economics References Committee inquiry into personal choice and community impacts, of which I am chair, has adopted 'nanny state' as its shorthand phrase to describe its focus. Last week, during the course of the first hearing, and then during an interview on Lateline, Mr Michael Moore, CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, spent a great deal of time deliberately confusing nanny state issues with non-nanny state issues. He was aided and abetted by the ABC's Emma Alberici, who kept asking me questions about guns. Firearms ownership is not a nanny state issue. If it were, it would have been included in the terms of reference for the inquiry. It is not a nanny state issue because the legal regime pertaining to the licensing of firearms owners has the aim of protecting others from harm.

Why does this matter? I am a classical liberal, like John Stuart Mill. And it is John Stuart Mill's 'harm principle' that is at the core of the political philosophy I espouse:

… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others … Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

During the first hearing, Senator Dastyari pointed out that it was in Australia's interest for people to be honest about their ideologies. Senator Dastyari is correct. The unwillingness of politicians— and many others—to admit to having an ideology allows confusion to arise. You will never be in any doubt about my ideology.

Mr Moore is hot on the idea of 'stewardship', developed by the UK's Nuffield Council on Bioethics in a lengthy policy paper called Public health: ethical issues. Stewardship, I am given to understand, means that 'the state has a duty to enable people to lead healthy lives'. It emphasises reducing what the council calls 'unfair health inequalities'. While I do not agree with the notion of stewardship, the arguments advanced in the council's paper are nuanced. They take John Stuart Mill's 'harm principle' seriously and treat those who oppose coercive public health intrusions with respect.

By contrast, public health advocates conflate the sort of regulation needed to protect children with regulation intended to protect adults from harming themselves through personal choices. The nanny state inquiry is not about children, and attempts to make it so are a straw man. No-one disputes that children must be treated differently from adults. While I absolutely prefer decisions about children to be left to parents, without state interference, there are circumstances—like child abuse—where the state must become involved. Public health advocates also purport to speak on behalf of the poor, less educated and less sophisticated. This looks superficially compassionate, but it is not. It is arrogant and elitist, and assumes moral and intellectual superiority. Its effect is to hector people about unhealthy lifestyle choices, controlling their purchases, and punishing those who maintain 'impure' behaviours—through regressive taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, for example.

In the Public Health Association's submission, and on Lateline, Mr Moore also made claims about the origin of the phrase 'nanny state'. He said it was coined in 1965 by the Conservative British health minister, Iain MacLeod, writing under the name of Quoodle, who in 1954 famously smoked through a press conference on the dangers of smoking, and who died of a heart attack at age 57. There is only one problem with this story. It isn't true. In fact, use of the word 'nanny' to describe state interference in individual choices is at least 13 years older and came from the left side of politics. In 1952, American journalist Dorothy Thompson—one-time wife of Sinclair Lewis, the Nobel Prize winning socialist writer—used 'nanny state' to describe British imperialism in the Middle East. Thompson wrote in her syndicated column:

Western empires have "filled" the role of headmaster, or Nanny-governess. The West does not treat the inhabitants of its colonies as equals.

She continued:

It is an amusing notion that comes to me that, with the retreat of empire, Britons are turning Britain itself into a Nanny-state, perhaps out of a long habit in persuading or coercing natives to do what is good for them.

In a 1960 article in the New Statesman, the magazine established by the Fabian Society, 'nanny' was used to attack the British Board of Film Censors. 'Novels and the Press get along, not too calamitously, without this Nanny; why shouldn't films?' asked columnist William Whitebait. He said Nanny 'exercises a crippling drag on the growth of a serious and healthy British cinema'.

Any attempt to discredit the nanny state term by linking it to Iain MacLeod will fail. He was a smoke-like-a-chimney health minister who voted for the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality, supported the immigration of all races into Britain, and advocated decolonisation. He also had a serious war wound and ankylosing spondylitis, such that it is unlikely smoking killed him at 57. It is also likely he was a classical liberal. Mr Moore thinks that the phrase 'nanny state' was coined by a fool. Iain MacLeod did not coin it, but he was certainly no fool when he used it. In fact, his opposition to illiberal laws and racism was drawn from the same anti-paternalism that drives modern resistance to public health regulation. MacLeod believed that a powerful class should not impose its own values on the rest of society. Colonial masters told their subjects how to live their lives—lessons given force by military domination.

Every time people in love with their own expertise—including many public health advocates—seek to regulate what people buy or how they spend their time or what they put in their mouths, they forget the people who shop and the people who vote are the same people. If we can trust people to vote—a difficult and demanding choice with profound consequences—we can trust people to know what to eat, to drink, to buy, what video games to play, and whether or not to smoke.