Tequila shots and cigarettes are the spice of life

When all liberty is gone, we will regret nanny-state laws, writes Sean O’Grady.

I was looking for some action...but all I found were cigarettes and alcohol.
I was looking for some action…but all I found were cigarettes and alcohol.

Doing tequila shots at three in the morning is fun. Drinking out of proper glassware is fun. In the unlikely event that I become suddenly rich, I imagine shouting a round of drinks for everyone I know would also be fun. I don’t imagine that clocking someone in the face and killing them would be.

The new regulations imposed by the O’Farrell government on the 58 licensed venues in Kings Cross will not only be ineffective, but they are also unfair, and un-fun. Restaurants and wine bars that open late are not part of the supposed problem Barry O’Farrell is seeking to deal with. How many serious assaults occur in, or outside of, wine bars? To force people to drink an expensive bottle of champagne from plastic is itself something of an act of barbarity. But more importantly, the regulations stop the vast majority of people – people who get drunk but don’t immediately glass someone – from having a good time.

Our clubs, bars, and pubs are already among the most regulated in the world. This latest round of nanny-state showmanship provides only a band-aid solution to the systemic problems of the Cross. They seek to attack a popular target, one that the public is habitually used to admonishing, instead of actually trying to affect change. It seems more likely that increased police presence which would deter assaults, and improved transport to get idle, drunken patrons off the streets faster would be a more effective solution. What’s more, it wouldn’t treat the vast majority of law-abiding citizens going out in search of a good time as potential criminals. Insofar as alcohol is legal, and therefore being drunk is legal, it is wrong to prevent people from consuming it in a manner conducive to enjoyment.

In the same week that the High Court dismissed an industry challenge to the Gillard government’s plain packaging legislation, the NSW government expanded the number of public places in which smoking is banned. It is now illegal to smoke in playgrounds, sports grounds, swimming pools, transport stops, and entrances to public buildings.

But Mr O’Farrell, supported by the Fishers and Shooters in the Legislative Council, did continue one important exception to the rule: the high rollers’ room at Star Casino. Who could have guessed that the business of rich Chinese gamblers and the clout of the Packer family could overcome this government’s otherwise unfailing commitment to altruism and public health.

The past week has also seen new regulations banning smoking in Melbourne’s playgrounds and parks. Such laws exist under the guise of preventing secondary harm to others, but it’s a poor justification. We are talking about open-air, public spaces: if troubled by second-hand smoke, people can choose to walk 10 metres away.

Moreover, the vast majority of smokers are polite enough not to blow smoke in your child’s face as he swings at the local park. And people who walk through a cloud of smoke a couple of times a week face no greater harm than momentary discomfort. They do not have a negative right to stop smokers from, well, smoking. It has already been stigmatised and regulated far more than any legal pastime should be, and the restrictions placed on smokers continue to undermine their ability to exercise individual autonomy.

Smoking is legal, and presents only harm to which individuals can rationally consent. Smokers, as a result of advertising campaigns and warnings on cigarette packets, already understand the health risks associated with the habit. There is no need for yet more regulation and finger-wagging.

With the O’Farrell government completing the trifecta by announcing reforms significantly altering the right to not self-incriminate – your right to silence – what emerges is a picture of the government using fear as a mechanism to rally popular support around legislation that undermines individual and civil liberties.

Sometimes it is the job of government to remove our freedoms for the common good. However, when exercising our freedom does not harm others, it is not the place of the government to legislate. And the effectiveness of using fear as a mechanism to facilitate increased control over individual and civil liberties sets a worrying precedent.

While the events of the past week may seem negligible individually – particularly if you’re not a smoker or a drinker – they form part of a broader, more corrosive trajectory toward state paternalism.

It is not the job of government to babysit us.

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