If one were to assess the importance of issues facing Australian society simply by column inches and the shrillness of politicians’ voices, one might be forgiven for thinking that the biggest threats to our environment, economy and indeed, our very social fabric, are cigarettes, poker machines, fast food and alcohol. Never mind climate change, biodiversity decline, increasing carbon emissions, collapsing agriculture, resource over-extraction, the global impact of natural disasters, the USA’s economic implosion, the Middle East’s political implosion, Sydney’s public transport implosion … what will really destroy us and rend our society beyond repair is the colour of cigarette packets, the attraction of legal gambling, the fat content in food and the drinking culture among our youth.
I’m not trivialising these issues: they are important within the context of health and welfare. But in the wider context of political issues that will determine the kind of future we prepare for the next generation, these issues are distractions. Diversions designed to take our minds off the crippling paralysis in decision-making on more complex and long-term issues – the issues that will really determine our future.
Politicians are becoming nothing short of hysterical about smoking and gambling. In the midst of the debate about selling cigarettes in plain, olive green packets, ACT Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope attempted to trump the federal government this week by announcing that he is considering banning smoking at bus stops. Oh, for crying out loud. If I’m standing at a bus stop and want to avoid someone’s cigarette smoke, I can move away from them. I’m not chained to the bus stop. Mr Stanhope would be better advised to trust the citizens of the ACT to make their own decisions on where they stand and what they do at bus stops and focus on getting more buses on the road or providing more bus stops in the ever-expanding outer suburbs. There is lot that could be improved about Canberra’s public transport system and smoking at bus stops comes a long way down the list of priorities.
Andrew Wilkie’s pet peeve of poker machines, or more specifically, the relationship between pokies and problem gambling, is, I am sure, well-intentioned. The proliferation of pokies in clubs and pubs across the country makes it frighteningly easy for people to part with large sums of money in short periods of time. Given that Australians, however, routinely wager around $80million on any given Saturday on various gambling pursuits according to research by the Australian Institute of Criminology, it makes singling out pokies as the root of all evil somewhat simplistic. Moreover, his solution to the problem, which appears to be a mechanism whereby gamblers put a self-imposed limit on their expenditure prior to playing, seems clumsy and almost impossible to implement or enforce. Why not just take the Nicola Roxon solution and make all the poker machines olive green? Strip them of the coloured lights, bright colours, bells and whistles and make them all look the same. While we’re at it, we could paint the TABs all olive green, as well as make it the default colour for lotto and lottery tickets. Jockeys can wear olive green silks as well. People would still gamble, of course, and the government would continue to skim its revenue from the proceeds.
While we’re at it, why not make all labels on bottles of alcohol olive green? And for the products that cause the most concern – usually alcopops marketed directly at teens – make the contents olive green as well. Drinking dull, olive green alcohol would still have the same effect as drinking brightly coloured alcopops or boutique beers, but at least it wouldn’t look as much fun. Speaking of fun, we need to get rid of all that happy advertising of fast food. A little bit fancy? Not any more. All those attractive colours and the enticing names given to the products? Yep, get rid of them. The government should legislate that every food product sold that has a fat content higher than a sultana has to be olive green. Sold in olive green wrapping. Except olives, of course, which despite their rather high fat content are actually quite nutritious so they should be an attractive, appetising yellow. Ditto avocadoes. From now on it’s olive green donuts, olive green burgers, olive green chips and olive green fried chicken. That should fix the obesity epidemic or if not, at least make eating a lot less enjoyable.
While the government persists with all this nanny state nonsense the real issues mount up. It’s just too easy for government to micromanage our decision-making capacity using that as a smokescreen for inaction on the big, hard, nasty things. A responsible citizenry needs good, up-to-date, unbiased information on which to make sound, informed personal decisions. All this government pfaffing with a law here, a regulation there, a bit of hysteria about poker machines, a stoush with Big Tobacco over the colour of cigarette packets just gives the impression of a government hard at work on the big dilemmas of our time. But it’s not. I’ve got news for the government. Regardless of what we eat, drink or ingest or how we choose to spend our money, the big dilemmas are not going away.
Oh, and Mr Stanhope – I quit smoking many, many years ago, but if you decide to ban smoking at bus stops I will consider starting again, just so I can break your stupid law. And I don’t care what colour the cigarette packet is.
Social responsible poker machine cartoon from Inkcinct