Meet The Nanny Spider: It Wants To Wrap You Up In Little Rules And Eat Your Life

Ignorance of the law is no excuse. So here’s a bunch of things you can’t do without council approval.

You can’t sit in a chair on your nature strip. (The council will impound your chair.) Nor can you play with toy cars on your nature strip, according to the City of Maroondah’s Proposed Local Law No. 8.

You can’t set up a lemonade stand. (The stand will be confiscated.) Nor can you put lemonade on a tray and offer to sell it.

Well, you could; but you’d have to provide proof to the council that you possess public liability insurance of at least $10 million. You’d also need to submit a Temporary Food Event Application and Footpath Trading Permit to the council, as well as an Events Food Safety Program to the Department of Human Services – having familiarised yourself with a 40-page document detailing the protocols for cleaning, producing, acquiring the ingredients for and properly labelling your lemonade. (This is no doubt why we don’t have a vibrant street food culture like America.)

You can’t hold a street party. You can’t take a half-empty bottle of wine or spirits home from a dinner party, unless your journey home avoids footpaths, parks or travelling on roads. (Drink it all at the party. That’ll learn ’em.) You can’t busk without approval. If you have approval, you have to stay mobile. You can only play Billie Jean on your keytar for an hour at a time in any one spot.

That’s a lot of rules and paperwork for what most people would consider basic community interaction. So is it any wonder we don’t know our neighbours?

Australians have talked a lot about the nanny state since the Rudd Government came to power. And not entirely fairly. Many proposals to tax and regulate fatty food, booze and smokes were considered during the Howard years. (An endearing quality of the Howard government was they didn’t actually do much.)

But when we look at all the petty regulations that increasingly govern every aspect of our social and community life, it becomes obvious the nanny state is about more than just taxing alcopops.

The nanny state is a vast array of rules and regulations that filter our social lives though rough bureaucratic webs, and patronisingly hold our hands through the most basic of tasks.

Government advertising campaigns are morphing from information dissemination to schoolmarmish mollycoddling – just look at those WorkCover posters telling us to get health checks, or those “championship” violence ads that seem to believe the best way to communicate with young adults is through condescension.

There is no facet of life the Government doesn’t want a stake in. Our communications regulator has been trying to figure out why some people don’t use the internet or mobile phones much. The answer was revealed in a report released on Thursday: they don’t want to. The report says these people are missing out on the benefits of technology, but come on. If people don’t want to download iPhone apps, why on earth should anybody, let alone the Government, care?

The Federal Government has announced an expansive “Golden Guru” program, which seems to be a sort of real-life social networking for seniors. And every Victorian council puts out a brochure or has a spot on their website encouraging us to be good neighbours – some even recommend topics for small talk.

But at the same time these governments seem to be trying their darndest to stop communities forming. In 2009, the winners of the Premier’s Community Volunteering Award have to be more than just civic-minded; they also have to be really good at filling out paperwork.

This stifling of social interaction is a worldwide phenomenon. In the UK, more than a decade of Labour government has left a moribund nation struggling under the weight of bureaucracy.

It was brought into stark relief this week when the British Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills accused two best friends who babysat each other’s children of running an “illegal child minding business”. They determined that taking turns constituted virtual payment for services. Then they told the mothers surveillance teams would be monitoring the families to ensure this regulatory breach did not occur again.

Pretty much the same thing happened in Michigan: a woman was fined and threatened with jail for minding children waiting for the bus in front of her house.

Australian community hasn’t been totally regulated away yet. But it’s disappearing. Unless governments drop their nanny-first attitude, we’ll lose it.