Australia's nanny state: A case of arrested development?

Men standing around a barbecue in Australia Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Is the relaxed Aussie lifestyle a myth?

For me, the laid-back, easy-come, easy-go, throw-another-shrimp-on-the-barbie stereotype of Australia is encapsulated in the vibe of its unofficial anthem, Waltzing Matilda, where a swagman pinches a local sheep for his supper.

In reality, these days our jolly swagman would probably be pulled up for pitching his tent without a proper permit, lighting an illegal fire or sparking up a ciggie in a public place.

Populated by convicts in the early days of British settlement, Australia still loves to lay down the law.

And now an Australian senator has set up a parliamentary inquiry into the extent to which the country has become a "nanny state".

Senator David Leyonhjelm says Australia's once "adventurous spirit" has been paralysed by rules and regulations, and millions of dollars are being wasted on bureaucracy.

Image copyright No copyright
Image caption The original swagman's story doesn't end well

"Australia is increasingly becoming a nanny state," says Senator Leyonhjelm, the sole parliamentary representative of the Liberal Democratic Party.

"The government is taking decisions out of the hands of adults and making decisions for them on the basis that the government knows best."

Senator Leyonhjelm says the idea of Australia as a relaxed country is no longer true.

"Unfortunately, the external image is not matched by the internal reality," he says

"Historically, going back several decades, we were a very relaxed place and governments tended to leave people alone. That is absolutely no longer the case."

And for me personally, I have to say Australia is without doubt one of the most rule obsessed and bureaucratic places I have ever lived.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Australian gentleman's guide to smoking says... don't smoke

When I first found out I was moving to Sydney in 2013, people told me: "Ooh, you'll love it over there. Australia is so relaxed."

The reality is that it can be a bit uptight.

Senator Leyonhjelm singles out compulsory bicycle helmet laws, tough anti-smoking policies, restrictions on e-cigarettes and alcohol licensing laws as examples of "nannystatism."

The 63-year-old senator is enlisting a team of psychologists to find out what, at least in his view, has gone wrong.

"There's a sort of moral obligation on politicians to do something when there's a problem," he says.

"If it was raining cats and dogs you'd almost expect the media and the public to say politicians should do something about it, to fix any problem that arises rather than just let it sort itself out."

He also argues that Australia's public health lobby has become too powerful and is pressuring the government to introduce unnecessary laws.

An innocent abroad on the streets of Sydney, I confess I have fallen foul of some of its laws.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption At least some people ignore the rules

I was fined A$71 ($51, £32) and threatened with court for crossing the road on a red light, unbeknown to me an offence in the state of New South Wales.

The jovial policeman who stopped me asked, out of the blue, what would happen if I were to punch him in the face.

"I wouldn't want to try it," I replied looking up at his bulky frame.

"Don't worry," he said

"Nothing would happen."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Jaywalking can land you in serious trouble

He told me the courts would probably let me off if I argued I was having a stressful day.

But jaywalking, he said, "the courts take that very seriously".

I wondered what Senator Leyonhjelm would make of my story.

"The one thing I will say about Australians is that we still have a healthy tendency to ignore laws so I am quite pleased to hear you ignored it too," he told me.

"In fact, I wish everybody would refuse to pay their on-the-spot fines for these silly sorts of things and go to court. It would jam up the magistrates courts something terrible and they would go back to the police and say 'stop being so stupid'."

Perhaps I'll quote the Senator when I'm standing in the dock.

Then again, maybe not.

Because for now at least, in Australia the law is the law.

More on this story