When National came into Government in 2008 it did so decrying a “Nanny State” and the evil of state intervention in citizen’s lives. That campaign was scathing in its criticism of programmes like healthy eating in schools which then Health Minister Tony Ryall immediately halted. And then he reduced spending on anti-obesity initiatives by 10 per cent. The National Government refused to regulate for placement of food in supermarkets and for advertising food to our children. And today they refuse to implement a tax that, based on scientific evidence, could reduce the consumption of sugary products.
How ironic then that, eight years on, this Government intervenes in citizen’s lives at an unprecedented level by making extensive use of urgency to pass laws concerning employment and health and safety, passing laws to oust the jurisdiction of the Courts and excluding access to the Courts for environmental matters in Canterbury. Couple those with surveillance and GCSB laws, erosion of prisoners rights and the myriad of social obligations placed on beneficiaries and we have experienced state intervention, or “Nanny State”, at a level that impinges on basic human rights.
But what of intervention in those areas where there is an issue of harm. Alcohol, gambling, smoking and obesity are all areas where this Government has been called on to intervene for the public good. Statistics continue to highlight the detrimental consequences of consumption of some products based on addiction and over-supply in some communities and to some vulnerable populations, all often linked by the challenges of poverty.
And despite the ease with which they erode democratic rights, the Government takes the least steps possible to deal with harmful health issues. Tackling obesity is the latest example. This Government makes no meaningful intervention on one of the single most pressing issues. Instead of introducing a sugar tax recommended by the WHO and health and academic professionals advising governments world-wide, and taking steps aimed at encouraging better and more healthy eating, this Government offers dieting advice, with little evidence to support its efficacy, to those identified in B4 school checks as obese. And which groups are disproportionately represented in the childhood obesity statistics? The same group that are poorly represented in B4 school checks, namely Pacific and Maori children who then won’t have an opportunity to experience these interventions that the Children’s Commissioner Russell Wills, a pediatrician, says will not work anyway.
As with the inability to take effective steps with addressing alcohol, so too has this Government fallen well short of interventions necessary to address obesity. And what is the common denominator? Protection of industries and companies that lobby the Government to protect their position, regardless of the harm that is done. Interventions by this Government protect businesses that support them and advertising agencies that promote them. And ultimately there is a lack of care and commitment to reducing inequalities which requires an understanding of how and why the poor are disproportionately affected by the creation of environments that exacerbate issues such as alcoholism and family violence, smoking and high breast and cervical and other forms of cancer, gambling and obesity issues.
And given the concerns around plain packaging for cigarettes and our commitment to TPPA, the ideal of a smoke free Aotearoa by 2025 seems less likely given the investment priorities of tobacco companies and the protections they have under TPPA at the expense of our smoke free commitment.
We do not live in a free society. Constraints on freedom to do what we like is placed on us every day. But those constraints or interventions should be for good. They should be necessary in order for a state to protect and minimise harm to its citizens. They should not be applied for middle class people at the expense of those in need nor for corporations at the expense of citizens.
This Government has intervened in ways that benefit its own purposes and its own supporters and falls well short where intervention is required for the health of its citizens.
How this government governs and who it governs for is I believe the most pressing issue in Aotearoa New Zealand right now. What are we going to do about it New Zealand?
On the last day of each month TDB will ask a range of progressive voices in NZ to write a guest blog on what they think ‘the most pressing issue in NZ right now’ is. This month our guest progressives are, Labour Party MP and Marriage Equality champion Louisa Wall; Unionist and human rights activist Tali Williams; and regional champion for the Labour Party, Stuart Nash.