Wanted: One nanny state

IF you’re downwind of Doug* you can smell him before you see him.

Partly because the main road he sleeps beside is one of those icy, inner-city wind tunnels, but mostly because he reeks.

If Doug’s seen a roof over his head or bar of soap lately, he’s hiding it well.

Everything about him is black: his minced skin, his congealed beard, his agitated monologues about pigeons and betrayal.

Doug’s misery sucks the light out of the street like an urban black hole.

Then, last Friday, he makes the sudden decision to leave, staggering off with a loaf of cheese and bacon bread in his hand and his putrid pants slipping down his thighs.

It’s hard to know what’s more shocking: exposed genitals so early in the morning or the fact that, despite the palimpsest of grime, Doug’s stomach is a pearly white and his pubes a delicate strawberry blonde.

It makes you wonder what else you’d find if you could bear to look. Who was Doug before he ended up sleeping outside abandoned factories beneath donated ducky blankets? Where is his family or the kids he knew in kindy? And who the hell screwed up and allowed this to happen?

During the reign of former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, the insult du decade was calling someone conspicuously compassionate or a bleeding heart.

Adam Smith’s invisible hand was supposed to look after the underclass even though quite often it seemed to be raising an invisible middle finger and sneering “nerny nerny ner ner”. The indulgent and economically delinquent concept of social justice was for girls. Then, last November, these girls — in the form of the so-called doctors’ wives — gave unrestrained economic rationalism a right electoral hair-pulling. Now it’s no longer such a social liability to suggest that Canberra help poor old buggers who forget to keep their daks pulled up in public.

Yet the notion of a nanny state — the governmental outlook and apparatus required to dispense this sort of social justice — remains as execrated as ever.

Well, I’m coming out of the closet. I want a nanny state and I want it now. Because despite what the free marketeers say about patronising infantalisation, some members of society really are as defenceless and as incapable of looking after themselves as kiddies.

Given the lowly status of carers — particularly female carers — it’s no surprise that the term nanny has been adopted as contemptuous shorthand for an over-protective domestic keeper who stifles our individual freedoms and sends us to bed without any sweeties.

But people who look after ankle biters — either because they’re paid to or because they gave birth to them — come in many forms.

There are, indeed, the smotherers who refuse to acknowledge that their little snookums has been perfectly capable of eating her own toastie-woastie triangles without a “here comes the aeroplane” food game since she hit 30.

At the other end of the spectrum are those heinous individuals who neglect or violate the vulnerable because they expect them to toughen up and fend for themselves. “I got the crap beaten out of me when I was a kid and it didn’t affect me,” they snarl, blind to the breathtakingly obvious fact that replaying this sort of cruelty is exactly the way it affected them.

Between these two extremes, however, is a different sort of carer: a switched-on professional who can compassionately assess the capabilities of their charges and step in or back accordingly. This uber nanny knows that some citizens (such as the world’s Dougs and Dougesses) need lots of help, while others (such as those who are accidentally rissoled on the roads) need babysitting only for short, intense bursts.

They know that most punters are mature, lucky or superannuated enough not to require child care at all.

This is the sort of nanny state we need keeping watch over our welfare and tucking in the lost ones on those winter nights when the Sydney cement gets so awfully hard and cold. Because — while individualism and independence are indeed exquisite states of being — not all of us are up to being home (or homeless) alone.

* Doug’s name has been changed to respect what little remains of his privacy.

- originally published in The Australian on 21-07-2008.

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