Counterpunch: The nanny state will nag you to death
This week parliament will debate a bill to establish a national Preventive Health Agency, reminding of that classic Mark Twain observation: nobody is safe while the legislature is in session.
On The Punch Federal health minister Nicola Roxon insisted that she was no nanny statist, and that the purpose of the Agency was about saving lives and reducing health costs.
Most modern governments understand the follies of outright bans, such as the failed US Prohibition movement from 1919 to 1933. However, the Agency plans what it sees as the next best thing.
With a total budget of $133 million over four years, it intends to tax and regulate your booze, ciggies and fast food that it’s more expensive or harder to get.
Minister Roxon denies that the Agency will embark on a nagging agenda. However it plans to spend $2 billion this financial year on marketing campaigns about stuff you know already. (Really? Over-indulging in junk food has health consequences?)
So if that’s not nagging, then exactly what is it?
The following year, in 2010‑11, the proposed Agency intends to go into a healthy living ad campaign overdrive with the marketing budget lifted to $33.8 million.
That would represent a seventeen‑fold increase in taxpayer‑financed spending devoted to hectoring and cajoling you to skip your Friday night pizza and Tim Tams with coffee.
The other element of the Preventive Health Agency is more money, or $13 million over four years, thrown at what the Minister describes as translating research into practice.
What that essentially means is new opportunities for public health boffins to get out of universities and into plush government secondments.
Once this occurs, they will be set the task of writing a stack of papers about ingenious ways to nudge people into a ciggie‑free, teetotalling life with no hamburgers or Mars Bars.
Those tasks pretty much amount to what the public health lobby do already, except that poor Joe (or Joanne) Average get slugged with a tax bill for the privilege.
It can also be argued that there are more effective research paths to help improve our health and life expectancy.
Think of the serious, cutting‑edge research and development into new drugs by pharmaceutical companies that often require billions of dollars but promise massive payoffs.
One should take the assurances of the Minister and the public health lobby that the costs of the Preventive Health Agency are small, and will always be small, with grains if not buckets of salt.
The Bill being debated in parliament states that the Agency must develop triennial year strategic plans for health improvement, backed by annual plans relating to the strategic plan.
These plans present an open‑ended recipe for a fiscal cost blowout. They rely, in part, on state governments and other entities being able to deliver desired preventive health outcomes on behalf of the federal government.
If the Minister or her senior bureaucrats feel that the plans are ineffective, or that the pace of health improvement is too slow for their liking, then even more dollops of funding will likely go to the Agency.
Minister Roxon likes to portray her critics as a hysterical bunch that cares little about the desirability of good health. The Minister can continue to trumpet this line at her political peril.
A recent analysis of media coverage of the Preventative Health Taskforce, which will surely inspire the activities of the proposed Agency, shows that public opinion was overwhelmingly against greater paternalism in health.
Average Australians that responded to the Taskforce report expressed concern about potential increases in taxes and regulations, as well as infringement on civil liberties.
The Minister may protest that the Agency will not ban goods seen as unhealthy, but will instead seek to nudge people towards a healthier path to living.
Assuming that no Australian listens to the braying of the proposed nanny health agency, and goes on eating, drinking and smoking as before, there will still be significant costs imposed.
This is because, no matter what we do, we won’t be able to avoid increased taxes on alcohol, tobacco and fast foods if they come to light.
We won’t be able to avoid the pain of higher prices at the checkout as businesses are forced to pass on the costs of more intrusive regulations.
Australians certainly won’t be able to bypass the fiscal burden of paying for Preventive Health Agency administration.
Whichever way one looks at it, Nanny Nicola is coming to a bottle shop, takeaway food bar and tobacco retail outlet near you if the legislation passes.
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