VIDEO: Why we fight the Nanny State — Stonehouse

Picture: Atlas House

I do not think too many members are unaware of my thoughts on the nanny state; I oppose what I see as its sinister creep into every aspect of our daily lives.

Video: Parliament of Western Australia

Just a few days ago, I took a call from a constituent concerned that her local council was looking to retrospectively ban synthetic turf on verges. Last week, I read about a cyclist being fined for using her mobile phone, and, before that — if members can believe the depths to which we have sunk — a woman pushing a pram was fined for using a mobile phone. Who even knew that that was illegal in the first place? I certainly did not. While the average voter wants to see resources spent on serious crime, it seems that multi-tasking mums and tots are now a target for Western Australian police. It would be laughable if it was not such a waste of police time.

I do not know how other members feel, but, as far as I am concerned, this sort of pointless interference in our daily lives has to stop. However, it is more than just a question of inconvenient regulations; it is also a question of how much coercion we are willing to accept in our lives, as opposed to how much responsibility we are comfortable assuming for our own safety and wellbeing. If taking a two-minute bike ride down to Coles to buy a pack of smokes, is it the government’s role to ensure that I put on a bike helmet before I set off, or should I expect to be able to assess the risk that I am about to take and to decide for myself what precautions are called for? Again, members know where I stand: if it is not going to hurt anybody else, I favour personal choice almost every time. As I have said in this place before, I subscribe to John Stuart Mill’s harm principle. He argues —

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

But where does that personal choice cross over into a sphere that allows it to adversely impact upon community safety, and how do we strike a balance between those two? The Premier has acknowledged that he would like to see a more relaxed, bohemian attitude around small bars in the city, for example. How do we then strike a balance between the liberty of proprietors to open a bar and the liberty of patrons to relax in and around it with the need to mitigate antisocial behaviour? These are, I would suggest, conversations that we need to have as a community, and where better to start than here in Parliament.

It is that desire to open a conversation, rather than to dictate, that has led me to this motion in favour of a select committee to look into the question of personal choice and community safety. I could have introduced a private member’s bill, or a raft of private member’s bills, looking to tackle individual instances of what I see as government overreach, but that would be impractical and less than ideal for forming a consensus. I am sure that many members, like most Western Australians, think that the government overreaches in at least one or more aspects of our personal lives. Although we may differ on our preferred level of regulation, I would like to invite members to join me in this discussion of where the balance should be struck between personal choice and community safety.

Members will note that I recently amended the terms of reference for the proposed committee to remove alcohol from its scope. I did not do that to suggest that I am happy with the level of regulation we have currently around alcohol and licensing, but, rather, as a realisation that we have spent a good deal of parliamentary time in recent months debating the regulation of alcohol in both retail stores and bars. I am also mindful that upon my and other members’ insistence, the government was willing to reintroduce the review clause into the Liquor Control Act. That being said, I was especially keen to include in the terms of reference harm-reduction products, such as e-cigarettes, e-liquids and heat-not-burn tobacco products, because these are issues of real public concern at the moment.

I receive daily emails from constituents who are baffled by the laws as they stand and I wanted to engage with fellow members on those questions. Members may be aware of a recent report from the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that explicitly recommends that smokers who cannot kick the habit should switch to e-cigarettes. This joins the large body of research that shows that using e-cigarettes is less harmful than smoking.

I am also keen to know where members stand on issues such as outdoor recreation. It seems to me that we should be encouraging our kids, families and friends to get out and enjoy the great natural and man-made environments that we have on our doorstep. If we do not use them, we can never hope to encourage tourists to make the most of them either. Yet we hem even the most innocuous activities with safeguards and limitations. Recently, calls have been made to enforce the wearing of life jackets on all water vessels, including boats, kayaks, paddleboards and canoes. Due to the recent tragic drowning of a rock fisher, proposals have been renewed for laws that would require anyone fishing from rocks to wear a life jacket. A cyclist riding on a busy street would certainly benefit from wearing a helmet, but does it benefit society to enforce mandatory helmet laws in low-risk areas such as quiet suburban streets or bike paths, especially when such enforcement may discourage bike-riding altogether?

Of course, these are all questions of balance. I am keen to see the committee discuss and debate whether we have that balance right. I am also keen to know what people beyond this Parliament think, which is one reason I prefer the select committee model over the more limited private member’s bill approach to these questions. The committee will be able to take evidence from interested parties and, to be honest, I cannot think of many who would not be interested in pursuing more personal choice. That being said, as a proponent of freedom and personal choice, the last thing I want is to be prohibitive about the scope with which other members of the community can participate. Although I hope we will have the time and the willingness to discuss regulations on car modifications, pool fences and more, I acknowledge that other members may have their own ideas, so I have left the final clause in the second section open. After all, this is a conversation and I want to ensure that all members have an opportunity to make their views known.

Personal choice goes hand-in-hand with personal responsibility. Our willingness to take responsibility for our actions and our safety sits at the heart of our understanding of ourselves as a community. That is why I do not see any of these individual questions as trivial, but rather as symptoms of a more general malaise that threatens the wellbeing not only of individuals, but also of our society at large. As such, I think that these issues are eminently worthy of Parliament’s consideration and I urge my fellow members to get on board and support this committee for the public good.

I obviously have my own ideological bent, but I will be only one member of this committee once it is established. I have left the scope of the committee open-ended to look at other matters. That was somewhat intentional. There are a plethora of what I would consider to be nanny state regulations that are hard to nail down — there are so many of them. Some are small and some are more serious issues. I also expect that members of the committee will bring their own concerns to the inquiry, so I wanted to allow for that. What I suspect will ultimately limit the scope of the inquiry is the time frame. With a 12-month time frame, we will have to be quite selective and discriminatory in what issues we choose to take on. That is what I see will probably restrict the scope of the committee in the end.

In terms of the membership, there were conversations behind the Chair with members of every party. I offered positions to every party in this chamber. The Nationals WA in the end did not want to have a member on this committee, so that position has been offered elsewhere. Once this motion is passed, I will move a subsequent motion without notice to establish the membership of the committee. We will see it then. As far as I know, it is well within the standing orders to move a motion to establish a committee and then to move a motion without notice immediately afterwards to specify the membership of that committee. I do not see any problem with that. Those privy to the conversations behind the Chair are well aware of who will and will not be on the committee. With that, I commend the motion to the house.