Nanny state Australia could learn from Europe


Helmetless Berlin cyclistDo we endure too much regulation at the expense of our civil liberties? That is the view of Canadian lifestyle magazine publisher Tyler Brûlé, who considers Australia a Grade A 'nanny state'.

According to Brûlé, we're on the verge of becoming the world's dumbest nation, coddled by excessive laws, because health and safety seem to win out on almost every discussion. He was referring chiefly to the City of Sydney's strict regulations aimed at reducing violence. Patrons are banned from entering licensed venues after 1:30 am and not allowed to purchase alcohol after 10:00 pm.

The laws were a response to violent incidents in Kings Cross. Because violent incidents have dropped 40 per cent in the area since the legislation was enacted, many commentators have championed their success.

But at what cost? Sydney's inner city is becoming stagnant. Other locations close by such as Newtown are enduring a spill over of inebriated, locked out weekend punters. Businesses are suffering through plummeting revenue, whether or not they had contributed to the violent incidents. As one expat writer living in Berlin suggests the problem is not so much alcohol per se, but systemic violence that cannot be cured by regulation.

After almost two years living abroad in Germany myself, I have observed firsthand a stark difference in how European societies strike a balance between legislative oversight and individual freedom. I have often remarked to friends and family that more or less anything is tolerated here, as long as you don't endanger or curtail the rights and freedoms of others.

There is a broad culture of tolerance and 'least intervention' that thrives on personal responsibility over knee-jerk intervention. The last thing European police or politicians care about is pulling someone up for not wearing a helmet, riding while using their iPhone, or drinking in the street. These simple personal liberties contribute to a society's atmosphere and quality of life. Bars in Berlin open until daybreak, and I've yet to witness a single case of alcohol-fuelled violence.

But the issue goes beyond lockout laws. It's about a broader culture of regulation that is fast becoming the norm in Australia. In the words of urban planner Matt Gollan, it threatens to 'over-sanitise our cities' and 'sap our entrepreneurial spirit'.

A long list of laws have drawn the ire of libertarians in recent years, including inner-city noise limits, mandatory bicycle helmets, and a 'fat tax' on junk food. So too plain cigarette packaging.

In this regard, some, like Stephen Parnis, vice president of the Australian Medical Association argue that the regulation of 'simple life choices' is justified from a health perspective. 'We have a collective responsibility to each other,' Parnis told 'That's what living in a society is all about.'

But isn't a healthy society also one that allows an individual to feel truly free within it – particularly when it comes to the tangible 'simple' stuff'? Or simply encouraging citizens to inform their own decisions about what is right for them and their communities? Interestingly, a group of venue owners in Sydney's Newtown recently bandied together to trial their own regulations in dealing with the Kings Cross punter spill-over, a common sense move independent of government, and a fine working model for their area.

Basic psychology tells us that 'taboo' invites desire: tell people they can't do something and they'll want to do it more. So too, if you treat citizens like children, they'll behave as such. But by branching an arm out to trust, you encourage and foster greater individual responsibility, which can easily spread culturally. A small minority may abuse it, but here in Europe, anecdotally at least, the minority appears comparatively small.

Restriction is not a dirty word: it is a necessary component of a healthy society. Legislation that enables us to make better choices about our lives is a good thing, like regulation on how corporations market and label food, for example. But when overly restrictive laws on the 'smaller' liberties in life are imposed on a well-meaning majority due to the actions of a handful of 'idiots', it enhances a widespread mood of petulance, fuel to a nanny state dynamic.

Cam HassardCam Hassard is an Australian freelance writer and musician based in Berlin.

Helmetless Berlin cyclist image by Shutterstock.



Topic tags: Cam Hassard, civil liberties, regulation, alcohol, youth



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Existing comments

The catchphrase "nanny state" has become a cliche and should probably be retired. Continental Western Europe is very different to Australia, which tends to be like the UK, Eire and other Anglophone Commonwealth countries in social mores and legislation. It is easy, by cherry picking certain legislation and its administration, to "prove" we are over governed and forced to be conformists to our economic and social detriment. I think you need far more evidence for your conclusion.

Edward Fido | 20 August 2015  

'Bars in Berlin open until daybreak, and I’ve yet to witness a single case of alcohol-fuelled violence.' Are you able to offer any thoughts on how the Germans might deal with the level of alcohol fuelled violence we see in Australia?

Paul | 21 August 2015  

"A broad culture of tolerance"? You have got to be kidding. We see neo-Nazism, racial and religious intolerance resulting in violent action etc etc etc on our news channels and the internet emanating from EU countries. I was bailed up in Amsterdam and blamed for global warming just because I am an Australian - and this by a sales assistant who was very tolerantly accepting my money. I am all for the concept of freedom - freedom to walk in public without being assaulted by a drunk.

Anne Perkins | 21 August 2015  

I tend to agree with the comments of Edward Fido. The article is sentimental in tone, and doesn't offer any real solutions in terms of public policy. Berlin is different to London, which is different to Athens, which is different to Madrid. Australia has a culturally-ingrained drinking problem, and laws that would be out-of-place in Berlin are necessary in Kings Cross to save us from ourselves. I am Australian, and I love some aspects of our bogan character, but it's the 'nanny state' that makes Australia a tolerable place to live for most people, despite the fact that we have a strong cultural tendency towards being crude, drunken, lowbrow, populist, loudmouthed, and racist. We also have a cultural tendency towards fairness, equality before the law, representative and accountable governmental power, and putting workable solutions before ideological purity.

Dave-oh | 21 August 2015  

I agree. I have been living in Switzerland for 30 years and every time I visit Australia I am annoyed by all the things you have to do or can't do. Here my dogs can run free, my pool doesn't need a fence, people can smoke if they want to (outside anywhere, in a restaurant in the fumoir) etc. Because some parents in Oz are too stupid to put window guards in their children's bedrooms and the children then fall out the windows there is no discussion about making it law to not be able to open windows fully in flats as there was in Sydney 2009. My mother's house was required by the insurance company to have a lock on every window and door. I only lock my door when I go away for a week or two. It's never been burgled. I'm staying here.

Ellie | 21 August 2015  

"Bars in Berlin open until daybreak, and I’ve yet to witness a single case of alcohol-fuelled violence." Meanwhile in Sydney, "...violent incidents have dropped 40% in the area since the legislation was enacted..." You cannot simply apply observations in one nation as a guide to expected social behaviour in another. Whatever the reason, many Australians have trouble controlling their behaviour when they drink alcohol. A generation of the freedom to drink long into the night also suffered the escalation of violence, including 'one-punch killings', in both Sydney and Melbourne, and many other Australian cities. If, as a nation, we cannot control ourselves, it is reasonable to use law as a state-imposed control. A pity, yes; an imposition on the majority who do control themselves, yes; but a necessary restraint in a society in which many do not restrain themselves.

Ian Fraser | 21 August 2015  

Yes, we're a nanny state. Some of the vehicle registrations seem to be aimed against neighbourliness. If I see a neighbour coming out of the store with two small kids and a load of shopping, I'm not allowed to offer her a lift home unless I happen to have the right restraints for the kids. Kids miss out on outings because you're not allowed to carry them in a troopy. It's the babies I'm most sorry for, can't be nursed by their mothers. Sorry for the mothers too, having to listen to the babies crying. and, of course, the mad drivers who do endanger their passengers are the ones who take no notice of the laws anyway.

Gavan Breen | 21 August 2015  

Einstein once remarked, :"An explanation should be as simple as possible; - but no simpler." In similar vein, when there is a problem, the solution should be as simple as possible; but not simpler. There is no doubt that it is simple to pass laws like closing times, seat belts, and helmets, and they do have good effects, but these 'one-size-fits-all' are a bit like Procrustes' bed, and they do little to promote individual responsibility, which is put in the 'too-hard' basket and ignored. This is where programs need to be developed and promoted. Religion once shouldered this task, but as its influence declines, ethical teachings need to step up to fill the gap.

Robert Liddy | 21 August 2015  

I write in support of the points made by Edward Fido. 'nanny state' is a pejorative term, usually invoked by conservative governments when they do not want to introduce policies that would curb the excesses of entrepreneurs and hoteliers. Or to oppose progressive parties who want to advance policies that make society a healthier and safer place for all, especially children. One big factor that makes Germany different from Australia is the climate. I was in Germany for three years. For eleven months in each of those years the sun rarely shone. Result - most Germans drank at home for most of the year. Australia on the other hand - most us can drink outside and have an enjoyable barbie most days.

Uncle Pat | 21 August 2015  

It need not be “either/or”. I’ve travelled through Europe and I enjoyed the lifestyles of the places I lived. I also enjoy being in Sydney, Melbourne and other Aussie cities. Of course there are differences based on history, geography, climate and almost anything else you can think of. I agree with Uncle Pat’s point that “nanny state” is a pejorative term. You can pick examples from here or there to support the “nanny state” theme but we should be realistic. Swimming pool fences are a sensible precaution. The smoking ban has improved the environment of indoor and public areas. Some places require dogs to be muzzled in public. Thank God we don’t have a gun culture like the US. The lockouts in Kings Cross are a response to a specific problem and seem to be effective for that area, but more thought will be needed if the problems are just moving to other areas. These restrictions are sensible responses to hazards; others may disagree and that’s where the discussion begins.

Brett | 21 August 2015  

" here in Europe, anecdotally at least, the minority appears comparatively small." Or, we could say: here in Australia, anecdotally at least, the minority appears comparatively large. Hence the need for restrictions.

Russell | 21 August 2015  

The idea that plain cigarette labelling is some sort of restriction of liberty is hilarious. But dogs should be allowed everywhere!

Penelope | 21 August 2015  

I read this article and some of the replies with a mixture of disbelief and anger. Many years ago, before there were seatbelts, proper child restraints and bike helmets, I worked for a neurosurgeon who was on the staff at the RCH and also had a large medico legal practice. One day when I was still new and ignorant, I commented that we never saw a child under 3 among our brain damaged survivors and he commented, "That's because they all die"! I would rather my child was crying and distressed than dead. And being held by mother is no protection as the forces involved in a crash will tear baby from her arms and project her through the windscreen to incur the dreaded "crown of thorns" head injury. I also saw people with gross, global brain damage (it's every bit as horrible as its sounds) who had fallen off their bike and hit their heads on rocks, gutters or simply the ground. Your article indicates that the 'nanny state' is necessary until people learn to take warnings about the consequences of their actions seriously.

Marion | 21 August 2015  

Actually I think Europe is learning from Australia. One example relates to smoking where it is now possible to find restaurants that prohibit smoking indoors. As a regular visitor to Europe I still find passive smoking forced on me and find the resultant litter disgusting. Thank God we have some enlightened policies that put the health of people above profits and so-called 'freedom'. Australians are blessed to live in a wonderful country and we certainly have more choice than many others around the world to relocate and live elsewhere if we don't like the sensible laws that protect both the rational majority as well as the stupid from themselves.

Anya | 22 August 2015  

I had my suitcase stolen in Germany last week in a carefully constructed "hit"! Police said it was an epidemic there. Much less unlikely in OZ.

Eugene | 24 August 2015  

The writer presumes that a healthy society is one where we "feel truly free". But is how one feels the best guide to behaviour? Feelgood morality is self-absorption -- a trip back to the endarkenment mentality of Hume, Bentham and co. -- not compatible with the gospel. Our Lord said, "I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come to complete them." Common sense based on true charity is the way to go.

Arnold Jago | 27 August 2015  

So you have been in Berlin for two years and your an expert? My girlfriend is from Berlin and is with me in Sydney and she will only go back for a holiday once a year. Your forgetting the dilution of the media in Europe plays a large role in how we perceive the culture. Rape and sexual assault is.much more common Berlin. My girlfriend has been sexually assaulted on the streets of Berlin 3 times and all of her friends back home have numerous stories which would enlighten us all as to how lucky we are. More than One of her friends has been raped on the street. Nothing makes the news in Europe. I was living there and I can vouch for that. We may have a drinking/violence problem but we have a responsibility to look after one another. I want to know what's happening on my streets. Berliners would rather not know! Thus continuing blind knowing that Germany has one of the highest rates of mental illness due to domestic violence and sexual assault. Culture is important but in my opinion we the people are more important. I would easily give up drinking and smoking on the street knowing my gf, sisters and daughters can walk the streets safety. I don't know, maybe I'm backward!!

Daniel | 02 February 2016  

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