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Loving the Aussies slightly less

ppack1

In August, I spent some time in my native land of Australia visiting family and friends. One Sunday morning I found myself wandering around the inner west of Sydney. I used to live in the area. If certain things in my life had gone slightly differently, I might still live in the area.

That’s life, though. I don’t regret moving to London in 2002. For one thing, if I had not done so, I might not now be writing for this blog.

In any event, I was thirsty. I nipped into a convenience store to buy a Coke. Anyone who has ever lived in a city will know the type of store. A selection groceries for people who have not managed to get to the supermarket. Drinks. Snack foods. Possibly a few pots and pans and other household goods. Cigarettes. In cities full of immigrants such as London and Sydney, these stores are normally owned and run by first generation immigrants. In the UK, this often means south Asians. In Australia, the owners of such shops are more often Chinese people, in some sense. (Often this can mean ethnically Chinese immigrants from Malaysia, Vietnam, or various other places).

People reading carefully may thing I am being careless in leaving alcoholic drinks and newspapers out of the list of things that such stores sell. After all, in London these things would make up a large portion of the business of such a store. Surely this is the same in Australia?

Well, no, actually.  Australian convenience stores do have vast amounts of shelf space devoted to sunscreen and insect repellant, but this hardly makes up for it.

Australia loves to regulate to protect vested interests. Laws vary according to state, but in Sydney an area will have a single newsagent, which will have a monopoly over the sale of newspapers in that area. This newsagent will be free to sub-licence other stores in the area to sell newspapers, but this normally only happens for Sunday papers, as the owner of the local monopoly will (or at least might) take the day off. In theory, the holder of the newsagent monopoly guarantees that he will provide local delivery of newspapers in the morning in return for being granted this monopoly. This may have once made sense, although I doubt it. Now though, most people who read newspapers at home do so over the internet. The monopoly remains, though. It’s about vested interests being protected from competition. This means, amongst other things, that convenience stores run by recent immigrants are not going to be allowed to sell newspapers.

Similarly, the sale of alcoholic drinks for consumption off the premises will be subject to (wait for it) a local monopoly. In order for a store to be allowed to sell alcoholic drinks, its owner must petition the government for a licence, and in this petition he must “demonstrate that there is a need” for him to be granted such a licence. The idea that it might be good for customers to have more choice, or that competition on price might be a good thing is not considered to constitute such a need, generally. In regions where there are existing outlets selling alcohol, new licences are almost always denied. (In any event, the prospect of cheaper alcohol will lead to scare campaigns and proposals for minimum prices and the like. This is great for keeping new entrants out). The prospect of an existing business suffering due to competition is considered a valid reason to deny a licence. (Yes, really). This means, amongst other things, that convenience stores run by recent immigrants are not going to be allowed to sell alcohol. It also ensures that existing businesses that have a licence to sell alcohol can be sold for sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s rather like buying and selling New York taxi plates, or indeed Sydney taxi plates, which sell in such a way as the ones in New York.

Convenience stores are allowed to sell cigarettes, though, aren’t they? Actually, yes.

“Catch 22?” enquired Yossarian.
“Of Course” replied Colonel Cathcart.

As of December 1, 2012, Australia introduced a “Plain packaging” law for cigarettes. As of that date, cigarette packets in Australia were not allowed any kind of branding. Cigarette packets were allowed to carry the name of the brand in a plain font, and that was all. Australia was the first country in the world to introduce such a law. This was applauded by the World Health Organisation, which had been endorsing such moves for some time.

Actually, plain packaging was a misnomer. Packaging is not plain, but entirely with health warning. In practice, this seems to mean that most of the cigarette packet is covered with pictures of diseased bodily organs removed from cadavers of people who died due to smoking related diseases. Interestingly enough, this led let almost immediately to enterprising people selling stickers to cover the rather disgusting images. The Australian Medical Association (the local medieval medical doctors guild) immediately objected and demanded that such stickers be banned, but these were ruled not to be illegal, which is something I suppose.

Being the first country in the world to introduce such a law was rather typical of Australia. Australian bureaucrats attend meetings of international organisations, as do bureaucrats from lots of other places. Nanny state moves such as this are often discussed at such meetings. Australian bureaucrats are very enthusiastic about nanny state moves. Australian bureaucrats then go home. Australia being a rather isolated place, Australian bureaucrats then don’t talk to other bureaucrats much other than at such meetings. (In a momentary defence of European institutions, I will say that bureaucrats in any one European country do at least talk constantly to bureaucrats in other European countries. This sometimes can lead their talking another out of doing particularly stupid things. Not always, but sometimes). Australian bureaucrats then introduce laws based on what was discussed at meetings of these international organisations, using the argument that they are merely complying with international practice. The argument that “If we do not do this, the rest of the world will laugh at our backwardness” is particularly effective, Australians being quite insecure about what the rest of the world thinks of them.

Thus Australia often manages to be amongst the first countries in the world to adopt particular nanny state actions. Sometimes the rest of the world follows. For instance, smoking in restaurants and bars was banned by the Australian state of New South Wales just before the Sydney Olympics. It was basically “All these foreigners who are coming here for the games will laugh at us if they discover we still allow smoking in bars and restaurants”. Hence we got one of the first such smoking bans in the world. On that one, much of the rest of the world seems to have followed. On some others, not so much. For instance, Australian states have passed various laws making the wearing of helmets compulsory for bicyclists since the 1990s. The assumption then was that the rest of the world would follow. On the whole it hasn’t.

However, plain packaging laws for cigarettes. Convenience stores in Sydney. I was buying a Coke.

As it happened, the person in front of me in the queue was buying cigarettes. A non-smoker myself, I had not seem any of these plain packages until then. (Australian penalties for littering are hefty). The shopkeeper opened a locked cupboard behind her. In this were all the cigarettes, in plain packaging (showing diseased bodily organs from dead people). She got a packet of cigarettes out of the cupboard, and sold them to the customer, for the equivalent of about £10. (Having the highest taxes on cigarettes in the world goes with having the first plain packaging in the world. Of course).

The law doesn’t just require that cigarettes have plain packaging, but also that they are kept in a locked cupboard that can only opened when a customer wants to buy cigarettes. On the door of this cupboard is a health warning, but nothing else. I did not know this at the time, but I am a nosy photographer and blogger. I wanted a picture, and asked if I could take a photograph of the inside of the cupboard.

The shopkeeper was not especially pleased. She asked why I wanted a photograph. I said that I was a foreign tourist, and that the plain packaging policy in Australia was a novelty to me. She very grudgingly agreed. After I quickly took the one hasty photograph with the camera in my phone, she closed the cupboard with haste. I once again assured her that my motives were completely benign. I continued to get the impression that she really did not like it. I wished her a nice day.

It was only when I walked out of the shop that I realised why she had been so reluctant to let me take a photograph. I might have been some kind of inspector from the local council, or the Department of Health, or someone else with the power to fine her or even to shut down her business if she were not in compliance with the law. Undoubtedly the law is a splendid way in which jobsworth bureaucrats can bully honest people like this shopkeeper who are just trying to earn a living. I almost felt bad about it, before directing my feelings towards the people who more deserved them.

20 comments to Loving the Aussies slightly less

  • I think we in the US got no smoking in bars and mandatory helmet laws before you wacky Antipodeans did. Or, at least part of the US since this is a local/state jurisdictional matter.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    It’s a state jurisdictional matter in Australia, too. I’m pretty sure California at least got a smoking ban before Sydney (in fact the state of New South Wales) did. I think the Australian state of Victoria got mandatory helmet laws for pedal cycles in 1992. I don’t know of anywhere that got one before that (and few places have them now), but I could be wrong.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    In Singapore, we have disgusting pictures on cigarette packs as well as extremely high taxes, but that doesn’t seem to deter smokers any.

  • Paul Marks

    Michael – areas of California now ban smoking in private homes. I think even the leftists of Oz would thing that was a bit extreme.

    As for the general policy of restricting competition – this has sometimes been called “conservative socialism”.

    It stinks – and Australia does tend to be more prone to it than (say) New Zealand.

    On the other hand Australia is a modern “Treasure House of nations” (in terms of natural resources) so it can afford silliness that would cripple other countries and areas.

    Indeed it will cripple California – which combines endless regulations with a level of taxation that would make Australians revolt.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Australian bureaucrats attend meetings of international organisations, as do bureaucrats from lots of other places. Nanny state moves such as this are often discussed at such meetings. Australian bureaucrats are very enthusiastic about nanny state moves. Australian bureaucrats then go home. Australia being a rather isolated place, Australian bureaucrats then don’t talk to other bureaucrats much other than at such meetings. (In a momentary defence of European institutions, I will say that bureaucrats in any one European country do at least talk constantly to bureaucrats in other European countries. This sometimes can lead their talking another out of doing particularly stupid things. Not always, but sometimes)

    Very interesting point, the more needed to be made to me since I am reluctant to believe any good of the EU. They have gone awfully quiet about the proposed “Robin Hood” tax on financial transactions recently, when a few months ago it was quite the coming thing. I am assuming this is because less-stupid eurocrats talked more-stupid eurocrats out of it.

  • Sam Duncan

    “If we do not do this, the rest of the world will laugh at our backwardness”

    Well, you can tell ‘em that we’re all laughing because they did.

    Although we’re hardly ones to talk here in the People’s Republic of Salmondland Scotland. We have the cupboards, but not the plain packaging. Dirty great shutters, in fact. I’ve actually overheard shop assistants having great trouble convincing customers that yes, they are open for business.

    “…but that doesn’t seem to deter smokers any.”

    Of course it doesn’t, WG. If it did, where would the revenue come from? The most effective thing in reducing smoking has been the emergence of electronic cigarettes, and they’re trying to regulate those out of existence. As the admirable Dick Puddlecote is wont to say, it’s not about health.

  • Sigivald

    The argument that “If we do not do this, the rest of the world will laugh at our backwardness” is particularly effective, Australians being quite insecure about what the rest of the world thinks of them.

    It still baffles me that people fall for that – or care what foreigners are doing.

    I’ve seen people argue that the US should do X or Y or Z “because the rest of the world is”.

    And in 1937, the Rest of the World was busy embracing totalitarian government, just as an example.

  • Mr Ed

    I opened this expecting to read about the cricket, and England’s collapse. However, like a lobster who has left the Thermidor for a while, coming back in after a break is always illustrative. Is a newsagent monopoly a state or city matter? I suspect that for many it’s just like the weather, people get used to it and assume it was always so and so it should be.

    I went to Portugal for the first time in a while last year, the coffee, cakes and tuna were just as good, and the grafitti ‘greve geral’ for ‘General Strike’ was identical to 1983, and just as abundant, the wine has improved. The Salazar generation of bureaucrats must be gone by now, those left alive would be on pensions, but the EU keeps their heirs busy.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    people get used to it and assume it was always so and so it should be.

    True of so many things. One of my abiding memories of the debate (not that there was much debate) about the introduction of the current Firearms Act was that so many people assumed that strict regulation of guns was part of the British tradition since time immemorial. Even old people whose OWN MEMORIES contradicted this somehow had that knowledge in a separate place from the assumption I have just mentioned.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Given that I am an Australian, I think it extremely unlikely that I would have used the title I used for this post if I were talking about the splendid cricket of last night.

  • In practice, this seems to mean that most of the cigarette packet is covered with pictures of diseased bodily organs removed from cadavers of people who died due to smoking related diseases.

    Well, I’m sure there is a blog post out there somewhere making this point better, but are these pictures really from people who died of smoking related diseases, and the pictures the effect of the disease? I saw one last weekend of a gangrenous foot. Unless this poor unfortunate was holding the cigarette between his toes or something, I doubt it was caused by smoking.

    I think the authorities just find the most disgusting pictures they can and simply assert the cause was smoking. That doctors are silent about what are most likely fraudulent medical claims doesn’t come as a surprise, but I think in the future people will regard this practice as bordering on insanity. It’s basically Rotten.com made compulsory by the government…all for your own good!

  • Mr Ed

    Michael indeed, but I did not know that you were Australian, and it might have been a reference to Mr Broad 1st day.

    Tim, is there any adult anywhere in the ‘developed’ World who has not been exposed years of anti-smoking agitprop? May we not now say ‘You health fascists have had your say, now shut up.’

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Hmm… here in the US we have an old saying about presidential elections: “Elect a Republican and have a depression; elect a Democrat and have a war.” Now, if we combine that with the idea of ‘disuasive’ photos on cigarette packages, what could we do with political ads?

  • Laird

    PfP, I think I’m nearing the point when I can properly be described as “old”, and I’ve been paying attention to politics for quite a while now, but I cannot recall ever hearing that “old saying”.

  • Mike Borgelt

    Ypu. Sums up Australia nicely. The liquor restrictions are because you don’t want the convicts getting drunk and unruly. Likewise very restrictive firearms laws. The convicts might get drunk and start shooting the warders.
    Yes, our bureacrats do take overseas proposals seriously when they should be ridiculed instead and the government uses the power of the state to benefit private bodies. Nice little fascist country, this is.

  • Bruce Hoult

    It’s a lot different to the country that Nevil Shute wrote about so glowingly after the war, isn’t it?

    I was afraid that we in NZ might have had bicycle helmet laws before Aussie, but it turns out to have been 1994, so we were a couple of years behind.

    We’re going to be just about the only place with a carbon tax pretty soon it seems :(

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Natalie – officials (and politicians) talk to others at conferences (at the expense of the taxpayer).

    Not just almost farcically sinister organisations such as “Common Purpose” (“we are here to make the world a better place – why are you saying at the horns and cloven feet of our lead speaker, are you some sort of bigot? I bet you object to his leather wings as well!”), but also official organisations…..

    For example I am a member of the “Urban Commission” – I have been to meetings in the past and see no good for the taxpayers coming out of it. So now I will only go if I am asked to do so LOCALLY (not from the organisation itself) – and oddly no request comes, just hints such as “do you not wish to network”?

    Errr no – and I would object to anyone else doing so (and claiming the rail ticket to London and so on). Unless some concrete benefit can be shown for the taxpayers. Otherwise what is the point of this?

    And the point about memories – yes it is true.

    Northamptonshire is a shooting county – it always has been, yet a move to abolish “gun control” would be seen as getting rid of a “British thing” (like the BBC and NHS – and Danny Boyle…..) even by people who have firearms hidden away……..

    “Double Think” – Plato wrote about it (favourably) thousands of years before George Orwell did.

    “For the purposes of navigation our people will know that the planets move – but they will. at the same time, know they do not move” (as the latter was in accord with the doctrines of his ideal state – but they would need to be able to make war against inferior states so they would have to be able to navigate……).

    People can indeed be lead to believe things that are directly contrary to their own experience – and yet still function on the basis of what is actually real.

    “Firearms no longer exist, our wonderful Danny Boyle state has destroyed every last firearm – now hand over all your goods for FAIR DISTRIBUTION or I will shoot you with this AK47″.

    Said WITHOUT irony.

  • J Jennings

    In Qld newspapers are sold in convenience stores in fact 2 doors from my home so all of what you say is not necessarily true.
    J J.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Hi Mum.

    Yes, Australia is a federal country and these things do vary from place to place. Queensland is a bit ahead of New South Wales in most of these things, although the law that states that for a shop to sell alcoholic drinks for sale of the premises, it must be sub-licensed by a local pub is something is a doozy

  • Dale Amon

    Quite some time ago, probably in one of the articles I wrote here, I suggested having free printable labels with pithy libertarian or at least anti-regulator phrases on them, properly sized so that purchasers of cigarettes might paste them over the Health Warnings. Now that Australia has reached a new depth of nanniness, I would suggest printable, foldable, reusable cigarette pack holders that carry the logos of ones favorite brand, or if that is not possible, carry as much Nanny insulting text and imaging as possible. Just my humble tuppence…