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  • RJ Smith

New South Wales: The Nanny State


The thin blue line between order and chaos: NSW police fining a jay-walker

Perfect weather. Beaches. High wages. Safety. My home town should be the best city in the world. But Sydney is one of the last places I think I could live these days. And here's a good example of why.


The government of New South Wales (the state of which Sydney is the capital)—after destroying the capital's nightlife through its paternalistic "lock out" laws—has recently introduced a new system for targeting motorists on their mobile phones while driving using sophisticated cameras, the first of their kind in the world.


The scheme has just been rolled out, but according to the Sydney Morning Herald:


More than 3300 people have been caught illegally using their phones while driving by new mobile phone detection cameras in one week across NSW.

Now, driving while using your phone, like driving while drunk, is obviously dangerous. But repressive laws are always justified on the basis of safety and the common good. That is what justified the now abandoned lock out laws that wrought irreparable damage on the city. A perfect state of safety is when you never leave the house.


But that's not the part that bothers me. What bothers me is the role of the state in the very problem it is seeking to stamp out.


Sydney's public transport is of a third world standard. That is partly due to the city's urban sprawl—so few people living in such a large space—but it is mostly due to the state of New South Wales being run by incompetent (and often corrupt) people for as long as I can remember.


Australia is one of the richest countries in the world. There is no excuse for its most populous city and important financial centre not having an integrated and comprehensive transportation system. Even the French, not known for the efficiency of their state-run services, have managed this in Paris.


The paucity of transport infrastructure forces commuters into cars and onto crowded and crumbling roads where they're often forced to sit in traffic for hours. And, being human beings alive in 2019, naturally they are going to check their phones in the course of their journey.


The state creates the conditions where committing an offence is almost inevitable, and then penalises the citizen for committing it.


None of this is new. These kinds of regulations are added year on year. Old rules are rarely repealed, if anything only increasing in severity over time. And everyone accepts it. No one says anything. I'm reminded of Margaret Atwood's words:


In a gradually heating bathtub you'd be boiled to death before you knew it.

In Sydney you'll catch a fine for smoking in many public places, drinking in parks or on beaches, riding a bike without a helmet or a bell, not voting, and even jaywalking. There are macho bouncers outside every venue, and police stalking the train stations with sniffer dogs hoping to catch some poor 15 year old with a bit of weed.


It's not just what the rules are but how aggressively they are enforced by a police force with apparently nothing better to do. It's the white picket fence, do as you're told mentality I've never been able to understand and which, having tasted relative freedom, I don't think I can return to.



Paris is a very imperfect place. The city is currently in the grip of the worst strikes in a generation. Trains are not running. Buses are packed beyond safe capacity. People are tired and pissed off. Cyclists and scooters are crashing into each other in the streets. As I type this I can hear car horns reverberating through the streets.


But at least the population is politically conscious and engaged. That's why you can do basically as you please here without being bothered by a member of some vast fraternity of heavily armed school teachers with their pencils and gilets jaunes breathing down your neck, telling you what to do, writing you up if you step out of line.


I'll be home for Hot Christmas and I look forward to it. Sydney is great—for a holiday.

© 2020 RJ Smith.