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Plastic bags are on their way out – so where are the cries of 'nanny state'?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

The Government’s pending plastic bag ban taps into a widespread public mood of willingness to do something. 

A decade ago, a Government lost office in no small measure because it appeared to intrude into people’s bathrooms. Some daft official postulated regulating the size of shower heads to aid water conservation, and – though never in any danger of happening – this went viral as the grossest of impertinences. Suddenly, and ludicrously, Prime Minister Helen Clark was held to be interfering with our ablutions, interposing herself between the people and their water pressure.

Nanny state was decisively relieved of her pinny.

How things change. There are political risks in this Government’s pending ban on single-use plastic bags, but the risks of not doing it are probably greater. The rustle of convenience has rapidly morphed into an emblem of people power against climate change.

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This doesn’t stand up to deep scrutiny, as supermarket bags make up a tiny fraction of landfill, and there are many more pernicious forms of environmental menace. The ban is more a feel-good affair than a quantum leap for the environment.

But public policy is most effective when it makes people feel empowered and motivated, as this ban does. Plastics of all sorts, bags included, are compromising marine life at a horrible rate, and any reduction is good news – even, unusually, at the cost of everyone’s convenience.

Thank Sir David Attenborough. The naturalist’s footage of an albatross feeding her chick bits of plastic has drastically accelerated acceptance of what would until recently have been seen as another smack on the hand from Nanny. Disposable coffee cups, plastic straws, cotton buds – all manner of other convenience items – are also nearing extinction in other countries. The ban taps into a widespread mood of willingness to Do Something.

Shower power

Drowning out the inevitable chorus of “nanny state/PC gone mad” will be the humming of shopping trundler wheels as hipsters virtuously co-opt the old Mrs Grundy prop. Some enterprising 12-year-old will doubtless soon dream up a green solution to rubbish-bin lining and picking up dog poo without a disposable bag, involving puka leaves, waxed paper and/or pocket-sized bokashi fermentation units.

And if the anonymous proposer of the shower-rose restriction piped up again, he or she would probably get a sympathetic hearing.

However, as is more usual in politics, a problem solved is simply another problem caused. It seems only yesterday that the phrase “the persistently high dollar is endangering our exports” was permanently programmed into one’s PC; televised property mania was bigger even than cookery shows; and “there just aren’t the jobs” was the bottom line of most discussions about poverty, crime and pretty much every social ill.

Now, voila! The dollar’s down – great for exporters. House prices are coming off the boil and even falling – relief for lower-income buyers. Unemployment is low – good for everyone.

Are we happy now? Well, of course not. The low dollar punishes savers and importers and stokes inflation. A housing-price slump could trigger a recession, so over-invested are we in our properties. And as for that long-wished-for jobfulness – businesses, with justification, complain they just can’t get the staff nowadays.

Talk about being careful what you wish for. The Government came to office promising to curtail immigration growth because of undue pressure on infrastructure – just as we have an unprecedented need for skilled migrants to improve that infrastructure and just as the rest of the world suddenly needs exactly the same skilled migrants, only it can pay them more than we can.

And on the latter issue, the Government has come under pressure – unusually from both left and right – to rethink the Working for Families tax credits because, though this Labour-instituted policy proved too popular even for National to wind back, it’s credibly cited as a cause of persistently low wages. The policy may have proved more of a top-up for employers than a safety net for families.

Photo/Getty Images

Ready for act-ion

Parliament just legislated to restrict foreigners buying property – just as the market has well and truly peaked, and the price pressure from overseas buyers has already done its worst.

Never fear, Act is onto it. Now more of a homeopathic vestige of Rogernomics than a party, it’s in the white rhino zone of endangerment. So what emerged from its annual conference as the king-hit solutions to restore it to relevancy? A possible name change, and a bill to reduce the size of Parliament from 120 to 100.

Rebranding can work – Fonterra, Zespri, Spark. But then again, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince eventually decided he had it right the first time. And these are all labels that manage rather more widespread engagement than the lone Act MP, Epsom’s David Seymour.

As for fewer MPs, it may give voters a momentary “give ‘em hell!” frisson, but it’s hard to further justify what would be a considerable reduction in voters’ representation. When we adopted MMP with its 120-member Parliament, the population was 3.7 million. It’s now nudging 5 million. Yet, at a time when MPs are representing an average of 30% more people per electorate, the party possibly soon to be formerly known as Act wants to cut that representation by 16%. This would save but a nano-sliver of taxpayers’ money, but make getting help from and feedback to one’s MP that much more difficult.

People would rightly complain that they hardly ever saw their MP – which brings us to Opposition leader Simon Bridges’ roadshow. Leaked invoice data, which was to be made public anyway, revealed he’d spent more than $100,000 getting himself seen by voters since becoming leader, most of it on Crown cars. Presumably the leaker thought this would play as grandiose troughing. Silly old them. The real story here is who was so cowardly and lacking in judgment as to leak this?

Much was made of the chummy frugality of former MP Hone Harawira’s hitchhiking to and from his Northland base and Don Brash’s washing his undies in motel handbasins. But do we really want our MPs to live like backpackers on OE, or should they use their time more efficiently?

Bridges has a responsibility to introduce himself to voters and gauge their views.

On the other hand, if he’d been caught with a plastic straw …

This article was first published in the August 25, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.