Managing the nanny state an election challenge

We make half a million 111 calls a year. That is one for every eight people, babies included. We are, it seems, a very violent or very jumpy society.
Telecom’s white pages say 111 is “for emergencies”. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary describes “emergency” as: “a situation, especially of danger or conflict, that arises unexpectedly and requires urgent action; (a person with) a condition requiring immediate treatment.”

If I had had to guess how many such “emergencies” there are a year, I would have said one for every 100 adults: say, 32,000. The police say 88,000 — the number of 111 calls they treat as “priority one”.

Would you have included as an “emergency” that call some hours after an indecent assault which catapulted George Hawkins out of his customary coma last week?

“Prompt” medical attention, yes, and “prompt” help to get to it. “Prompt” counselling, yes. “Prompt” police action to catch and charge the offender, yes — and police concede they let the complainant down.

But “urgent” action? Was life or limb or property in “immediate” danger?

Since I don’t know all the facts, I can’t pronounce. But on the Herald’s version of the facts it is at least arguable that a sensible suburb-dweller might have made the same mistake the 111 call centre is now judged by all to have made.

The call centre is staffed by humans. Humans make mistakes, no matter how well-intentioned and trained. Mistakes happen in your workplace every day.

Among those half-million calls there must be thousands of borderline cases on which an operator under pressure has to make a snap judgment — without hindsight and not in the comfort of Parliament’s leather couches.

So mistakes will be made, even when Hawkins goes. The black mark against Hawkins is mounting evidence suggesting he has not given enough of a steer to, and ensured enough resources for, police to cut the mistakes to a human-fallibility minimum.

But what does the lather about 111 calls and the trigger-happy recourse to 111 say about us as a people?

It says we have now got the nanny state mentality bad. We believe we are entitled to a perfectly safe and perfectly restorative society.

No child shall graze its knee in a public playground. No operation in a hospital shall go wrong. No amount of bad eating and drinking shall deny us excellent health and doctors shall fix us up for free if we get a twinge. If we go in a bike race and forget we have been told to abide by the road code and we cross the centre line, we must not die. The state should see to it. And if not the state, the courts.

The state, as a result, is expected to become ever more vigilant and protective and, as a consequence, ever more intrusive.

And, indeed, the state is doing that. Hence the smoking ban. We cannot look out for ourselves and stay out of smoky places. The smoke must be removed so that we cannot be in a smoky place.

But the more intrusive the state is in the name of absolute safety, the more it upsets the people it intrudes on.

That is called by some “political correctness”. It is one of the government’s vulnerabilities this election year. In a poll I had done last year 59 per cent thought the government too politically correct.

The trick is to get the balance right. If the opposition parties’ rhetoric is to be believed, the balance would go something like this: make the responses to all 111 calls perfect and provide a Rolls-Royce police (and ambulance and fire) service on demand; but don’t interfere with people’s right to smoke themselves into “free” hospital care at others’ expense.

Social democrats are particularly vulnerable on political correctness because they extend people’s expectation not to be harmed to a right of minorities to be equalised with the mainstream and thus to have the harm of “social exclusion” excised. Hence the Civil Union Bill.

Don Brash cottoned on to this dimension back in November when he turned his principled support for civil unions suddenly into a principled respect for a democratic decision on the matter by way of referendum. If Labour had the balance wrong, there may have been some votes in the suburbs to be won off Labour by voting against the bill.

The Labour party once was rooted in people who worked for wages and joined unions to battle the bosses. During the 1970s rights-seeking interest groups, notably women, gays and Maori, supplanted unionists as influences in the party.

Labour’s manifestos since have reflected that. Its programme in office since 1999 has reflected it.

Its legislation this year won’t reflect it because Helen Clark wants no needless controversy in the election run-up. But what about next term?

How much more can Labour extend rights for non-mainstream groups before there is a voter whiplash? Might that whiplash happen during this campaign? National hopes so.

It is all about managing the nanny state. We have made it clear we want one. But we have yet to make clear to governments what its qualities and limits should be.