Nanny state is a poor guide to policy design
IPA REVIEW ARTICLE
Living in a first world country, Australians are entitled to expect their governments to support the delivery of basic services and amenities-for a price.
But now Australians are being told by state and federal governments that no matter the price, we cannot have access to certain services, nor decide for ourselves whether to exercise what should be the fundamental right to choose which and how much of a service we use.
As we are drawn into debate about whether we should have access to a specific basic service (like backyard water) or the right to decide to exercise a specific basic right (such as the responsible use and re-use of a plastic shopping bag), a government stands in our way, wags its finger, and imposes a ban, prohibition or punitive measure.
In so doing, governments prey furtively upon the intent of most Australians to ‘do the right thing'. Of course most people consider they are rightly ‘doing their bit', because ‘every little bit helps' ... doesn't it?
Preying upon the ‘feel good' mentality of most Australians means it is somehow un-Australian to speak out against these supposedly ‘good' bans and prohibitions. So we don't. Instead, we honour the ban mostly in the breach, observing others doing the same, encouraging Australians to disrespect our legal fabric.
Debate around the ban or prohibition becomes a smokescreen for government inaction on what should be the real agenda-to prove the case for the ban or prohibition, and fix the alleged ill.
We stand by, whilst bans penalise the well-intentioned majority, in attemptingto police a less well-intentioned minority. And in this process we're drawn inexorably into the web of more regulation for no demonstrated public good. It's a vicious cycle.
Adelaide's four year-old backyard water bans are a good example. They're unnecessary and don't save water. They cause our communities pain. And they won't help the Murray-Darling River. Even in cities and regional towns which don't rely on the Murray-Darling, water restrictions are a cover for lack of genuine infrastructure planning and government inaction.
Backyard water bans are unnecessary-we already save water, with or without water bans. Backyard water bans don't save water-people save water.
Federal water Minister Penny Wong said as much in Adelaide recently:
In Melbourne ... people are now using 22 per cent less water per person than they were in the 1990s. What's most impressive about this statistic is that a saving of 22 per cent was achieved during a time without water restrictions.
And South Australian Water Minister Karlene Maywald has acknowledged similarly:
... it's a voluntary program so we're asking people who have the old style of shower heads to think about being water wise in the home and to take the old one in and get a free one from the council, through SA Water which is a terrific initiative. There's no compulsion to do it but we're certain that a lot of people will want to do this because our community is becoming far more water wise.'
The country community of Broken Hill reduced household water consumption by an average 22 per cent between 2005-6 and 2006-7. According to Country Water's General Manager Brian Steffen, without having water restrictions imposed upon them, Broken Hill residents were using water at the rate expected under level 3 restrictions.
This helps explains why the South Australian government can't show any causal link between water bans, and water savings. Certainly, the state's water figures show metropolitan Adelaide's weekly consumption, tracking satisfactorily alongside level 3 water restriction target consumption. But neither these figures, nor any others, demonstrate any causation. There is none. Backyard water bans cause communities pain. They pit citizen against citizen, and make criminals of the community-minded. And as the Productivity Commission has pointed out, water bans have hidden costs, including,
... structural damage to buildings, deterioration of lawns and gardens; purchasing new watering systems; time spent on labour-intensive methods of watering; injuries from carrying ‘grey water' in buckets and the emergence of ‘water rage'.
In Adelaide, houses built on clay soil are seeing thousands of dollars worth of previously unseen cracks open up due to drying soils-the Cathedral City is becoming a cracking city.
But the greatest indictment of all is that backyard water bans will do nothing to significantly improve the plight of the Murray-Darling River. When Maywald praises Adelaide for reducing water use by 29 per cent, she doesn't tell us that will save a mere 11 GL out of 600GL (or less than 2 per cent) of South Australia's annual usable take from the Murray. Backyard water bans are a distraction from governments' lack of action on water projects.
Addressing South Australia's water problems includes separating Adelaide from the Murray and allowing our farmers and river communities full access to the Murray's available water. Adelaide has a long coastline with consistent winds. Re-using waste water and combining wind energy with desalination would afford coastal rural communities and Adelaide itself access to green and plentiful solutions, at a price within our ability to pay.
State governments across the country are headed the same way with plastic bags. It's another example of a ban which is unnecessary, won't work, will cause community pain, and carry hidden social and economic costs. What will be ‘fixed', by banning plastic shopping bags? Plastic bags are not the litter culprit they are alleged to be, so litter won't be reduced markedly.
Plastic bags make up two per cent of Australia's litter. Of the plastic bags used, a tiny one per cent end up as litter. And the oft-alleged damage that plastic bags cause to sea life (usually photogenic dolphins and turtles) misrepresents scientific reports which refer to the harm caused by plastic debris-mainly nets and fishing lines.
Nevertheless, we are already plastic-bag savvy-93 per cent of shoppers re-use or recycle their plastic bags.
The value of education over enforcement has again been acknowledged by government, with Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett referring to voluntary action (including by supermarkets) causing plastic bag numbers to drop from 7 billion bags in 2002 to 4 billion now.
State government's plans to ban plastic shopping bags defy independent research showing the proposed ban on 57 per cent of the state's plastic bags would be inefficient and more expensive than the litter problem at which it is allegedly aimed.
Governments should do away with bans and prohibitions, embracing education and eschewing bureaucratic inaction.
Australians are increasingly waste-wise and prudent with plastic bags, re-using them, not misusing them. With education and constructive government action, we can do even better-but not with bans or prohibitions.
That's not to say that we should never have bans or restrictions imposed by law. But they should be the very last resort, not headline-grabbing camouflage for inaction. It's a matter of balance-a balance which Australians are letting governments take increasingly out of kilter.