Freedom, the nanny state and what’s going on Down Under.

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The author’s wife under arrest in Perth (thankfully it was just for a laugh).

By Grant Hall.  Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

When you ask long-term expats  what they like about living here in Vietnam, one of the first things they usually say is “the freedom”. That’s right, Vietnam, a nation that Westerners like me, and particularly those of us who grew up during the Cold War, have been constantly told has no freedom.

Here in Vietnam, if  I want to go for a swim at the beach I just get on my bike and ride there. Easy. Now, if I was living in Sydney, in my home country of Australia, and I wanted to ride my bike to the beach to have a swim, under laws introduced last monthI would have to carry photo ID, (and then find a place to stash it whilst swimming) and get a helmet and put it on before leaving home. All of which is a pain in the arse, so much so that I might just say “bugger that”, stay at home and fiddle with my phone all day.

In my first week in Vietnam, before I had decided to settle here, I was sitting on a bus and a woman sold me a six-pack of beer for about two bucks through the window. Better still, no one looked at me strangely when I cracked the first one open and started drinking away. Try doing that on a public bus in Australia and its likely six squad cars, a SWAT team and a helicopter will show up! The fact that I could drink beer on a bus and ride a bike without wearing a helmet were two important factors that influenced me to stay in Vietnam.

At the risk of exposing myself as a bogan at best, a criminal at worst and blowing the ‘personal brand’ I’ve been working hard to develop, here are some things I sometimes find myself doing in Vietnam; riding a bike without a helmet or ID, buying booze from a supermarket, buying booze after ten pm, having a picnic on the beach with my family with an accompanying bottle of wine and (very occasionally) staying out past my bedtime.

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The author enjoying in Vietnam an activity that is illegal in Australia (riding a bicycle without a helmet)

Doing any of these things in Australia requires some prior consideration. You want to buy a bottle of wine after 10pm in Sydney? You’re not allowed. Want to drink a glass of wine at your beachside family picnic lunch gathering at Glenelg in SA? Verboten. Want to go for a quick spin on your bike? You might need your helmet and ID. Want to stay out late somewhere other than a soul-sucking casino? Go online and see which neighbourhoods are still open (if any). Just thinking about it makes my muscles tense, raises my blood pressure, increases my heart rate, makes my pupils dilate and brings about an urge to ram my head into a wall.

I’ve seen many examples throughout my life of nannystatism gone mad.

Going to the cricket at the WACA oval in Perth Australia is insane. No you can’t bring in an umbrella, no we don’t have a cloak room where you can store it, no you can’t drink here, no you can’t stand there, no you can’t order two beers.

Check out this mind-boggling sign I came across in Mumbai, India.

Mumbai sign

One time I was with a group of friends, mostly Aussies, in Chicago. We were taking a swim at the Ohio Street Beach. There was a lifeguard in a row boat, and when we started swimming out from the shore the lifeguard raised his megaphone and told us to stop swimming out so far. We laughed and ignored him and kept swimming until he started threatening to call the police and have us all arrested. We stopped swimming and stood up – the water was only up to our waists. “Good thing your boys are fightin’ over there in Iraq protectin’ your freedoms” quipped one of the lads. On the evening of the same day we were again threatened with arrest, this time for leaving a music festival through the wrong gate! I really hate being threatened with arrest. The threat of arrest should only be felt by criminals.

I also spotted this sign on the internet!

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‘Enjoy your freedom America’ from http://www.neatorama.com

Modern life is busy, complex and stressful enough without manufacturing more complexities and stresses to place ourselves under. I shouldn’t need to read lengthy sign-posted instructions before going for a jog around the local park, if I want to ride my bike to the beach it shouldn’t require forethought and planning, and I shouldn’t have to plan my shopping around ensuring that I have stockpiled enough wine in case I run out after 10pm. Who has time for all the forward planning, research and reading one needs to do prior to undertaking normal life activities? In Vietnam these stresses are taken out of the equation; I just do what I want, when I want, as I want, and no one interferes. Sure I can’t go around loudly badmouthing the government, but it’s not my government to badmouth and I want to keep living here so my mouth stays zipped!

Nannystatism though, regardless of my flippancy, has serious repercussions. The heightened levels of nannystatism in Australia have drawn media attention around the world and it’s going to have an impact on business. Sydney, which I remember from many visits over the years as being an incredibly vibrant and exciting place now has the reputation of being “closed”. This will obviously affect tourism, particularly among young people who want to stay out late and undertake other neo-criminal activities such as riding bikes, but companies will also be less able to attract talent to Sydney simply because the talent won’t want to live there. If companies can’t attract and keep the required staff, they will set up or move elsewhere. It’s embarrassing that the first person fined under the new bicycle laws was a newly arrived American expat; way to go Sydney!

My career demands that I maintain flexibility about where I live, but that said I have let opportunities pass to live in Beijing because I don’t want to live in such a polluted city. Similarly, the bike helmet/ID factor in Sydney for me, as a cyclist who only owns a car when necessity demands it, would put me off moving to Sydney in the same way that pollution has put me off living in Beijing.

Another risk that creating a nanny state brings about is that it is not a large step to move from a nanny state to a police or military state. The Australian Government occasionally dips its toes into the waters of policestatism, such as when it announced last year that it was going to undertake random visa checks on people in Melbourne’s CBD “with any individual we cross paths with”; thankfully the move was rebuffed by the public and the experiment was abandoned. The reformation of sections of the Immigration Department into an armed, black shirted and highly politicised paramilitary force is likewise an experiment in the militarisation of government processes that frankly don’t require militarisation.

Like many people I was outraged when I heard about the planned Melbourne CBD visa checks and I was reminded of it when I recently came across the photo below taken in Sydney, of police undertaking a security sweep whilst people were trying to relax by the pool. Also gaining widespread media attention were the Sydney cops who recently harassed a small business when, during their visit, advised the wine bar that ‘blackboard listing wines by the glass could promote anti-social behaviour and heavy drinking’. The thought of police on every corner making innocent people feel uncomfortable for going about the business of their everyday lives under the pretence of public safety is a scary one.

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Image from 2dayFM.com

As Stuart Weir, Anthony Barnett and Jolyon Jenkins wrote for The New Statesman back in 1988:

We have had less freedom than we believed. That which we have enjoyed has been too dependent on the benevolence of our rulers. Our freedoms have remained their possession, rationed out to us as subjects rather than being our own inalienable possession as citizens.[1]

If you are a regular Joe in Australia these days, you’re a sucker if you think that the government governs in your interests – it doesn’t. Our elected representatives, for the most part govern for the sake of their own interests and the interests of a small group of elites who benefit from their decisions. There’s no finer example than how the two major Australian political parties recently joined forces to vote against a move to reduce the extortionate fees that customers of Australia’s banks, large financial donors to both parties, are charged to use their ATM’s. Aussies mostly accept this situation as true, and have been said to be apathetic in regards to political matters, but let me say this; Australians can only be pushed so far before they start pushing back. Look at how quickly Australians drew a line in the sand against the planned Melbourne CBD visa checks, and how doctors, nurses and hospital staff have been engaging in acts of civil disobedience against the cruel immigration policies of the Australian Government that requires infants to be detained in abusive and volatile offshore detention centres.

When push comes to shove, Australians don’t accept freedom as mere rations and are resisting the rising tide of nannystatism through public rallies, articles, social media action and petitions – and this is a good thing. It’s worth all of us keeping in mind, that sometimes, as The Beastie Boys wisely used to sing:

“You gotta fight.. for your right..”

For more posts about Australia click here.

For more posts about Vietnam click here.

Endnotes and sources are listed on the next page.

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