Aussie laws under scrutiny in 'nanny state' inquiry

Australia has begun conducting an unusual parliamentary inquiry into whether it is a nation with too many regulations.

The broad range of regulations is being examined by an inquiry into "personal choice and community impacts", launched by libertarian Senator David Leyonhjelm.

Mr Leyonhjelm, 63, Parliament's sole Liberal Democrat member, said he wanted the so-called "nanny state" inquiry to examine laws that limit people's ability to enjoy themselves at their own risk.

But numerous experts and commentators have argued that Australia is not over-regulated and that its strict laws in areas such as alcohol and cigarettes are aimed at promoting public health.  

The inquiry, which is taking public submissions until Monday and is due to report in June next year, is examining laws that restrict liberties "for the individual's own good". It has pinpointed regulations covering cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, bicycle helmets and the ratings system for films and computer games.

Some have argued that over-regulation - particularly strict rules around drinking - risk making the country boring.

Mr Leyonhjelm said the government "has a role of stopping you doing harm to other people… but when it's just you being harmed through your own choices, that's nanny state".

"You can go right through Europe… and see people riding bicycles in their millions and, with the exception of children… you see very few helmets," he told Sydney's Daily Telegraph. 

"It's good that parents take responsibility for their littlies and put helmets on them... but it's not the government telling them. Here in Australia we say we don't think you're sensible enough to make those decisions for yourself."

The parliamentary inquiry follows Australia's much publicised efforts in recent years to combat smoking and alcohol-fuelled violence.  The nation has been a world leader in introducing plain packets without branding for cigarettes and has launched a recent crackdown on late-night alcohol consumption in Sydney's inner city to curb alcohol-related assaults. 

Professor Roger Magnusson, an expert in public health law at the University of Sydney, said laws targeting road safety, tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy foods were often aimed at saving lives and preventing disease. "A lot of this debate about the nanny state is really about regulating the alcohol, tobacco and food industries," Prof Magnusson told The Sunday Times. 

"Sure, we have liberties but we also have to recognise the environment we are in. With health regulations, they have usually been introduced after much thought about whether there is evidence-based cause for using laws to prevent death and disease."

The claim that Australia is turning into a "nanny state" - a quality often attributed to Singapore - is typically made by conservative commentators, who tend to accuse the government of encroaching on the rights and freedoms of the individual. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2015, with the headline 'Aussie laws under scrutiny in 'nanny state' inquiry'. Print Edition | Subscribe