It isn't politicians who are the real threat to our peace, tranquillity and freedom to live life as we choose (within commonly accepted boundaries). It's the civil servants who come up with ridiculous rules, free from the public opprobrium that generally protects us from worst excesses of politicians who get carried away.
They did it again last week, declaring that the 'guidelines' for pre-school centre lunches had become compulsory, banning a number of things that supposedly pose a life-threatening risk, including hard rice crackers, dried fruit, popcorn, nuts, large seeds, hard or chewy lollies, potato crisps, marshmallows, even sausages/saveloys. Hard foods such as apples and carrots have to be grated if they're raw, or cooked until they are soft and cut into strips.
Stones and large seeds must be removed from fruit, including watermelon, while grapes, berries and cherry tomatoes must be quartered or finely chopped. Ever tried quartering a grape? Peas must be cooked and squashed with a fork for children under 3. Once they reach that magic age, they are permitted to dice with death by tucking into whole cooked peas. Raw peas presumably remain too great a risk until the consumer is old enough to have life insurance.
There's more. Skin must be removed from chicken, stone fruit, apples, pears and tomatoes, and raw salad leaves must be finely chopped. Meat must be cooked until it is very tender, and minced, shredded or finely chopped.
The only good news is that these rules only apply to centres that provide meals for their children. As far as parents are concerned they are still only guidelines. Centres are required to promote them to parents, but those who wish to stuff their kids' lunchboxes with any of the banned ingredients are free to do so.
One suspects, however, that lunchboxes will be inspected by risk-averse teachers, and parents who flout the guidelines will at the very least be frowned upon, if not chastised, to the point where many will feel they should comply, if not to boost the chances of their child surviving their pre-school years then simply to avoid criticism.
There has been some pushback, although it's been pretty feeble. Last week Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking that he thought the Ministry of Health had gone too far, arguing that trained teachers knew how to supervise children, including their meal times. Parents, however, seemed to be divided.
There were those who could be included in the 'normal' camp, who resent this degree of intrusion, while others, for whom the brainwashing process is obviously well advanced, were grateful to the Ministry of Education for pointing out how they had been unwittingly risking their children's lives thus far, and welcomed the latest edict.
It all stems from a Rotorua toddler choking on a piece of apple at an early childhood centre in 2016. He survived, but suffered severe brain damage, from which he will never recover. The ECC quite rightly had every sympathy for the child and his family, but this was an over-reaction. "It's wrapping kids in cotton wool and is unnecessary," Reynolds said.
He might also have asked why it had taken the ministry more than four years to react to an incident that, in its view, clearly warranted such a response. If there were genuine lessons to be learned from this youngster's tragic mishap, should they not have been learned a little more quickly than this, rather than allowing thousands of children to continue flirting with calamity by tucking into crackers and watermelon for four more years of pre-school lunches?
Reynolds suggested that the important thing was to ensure that adult supervision was appropriate, noting that apple provided by a centre had to be peeled and grated, but one put into a child's lunch box did not have to be.
The Ministry of Education, of course, has defended the change from guideline to mandatory, which deputy secretary Katrina Casey said last month was designed to protect young children from choking. Food would also have to meet the nutritional and developmental needs of each child, who would need to be seated and supervised while eating (fair enough), and more staff would be required to have a current first aid qualification (shouldn't they all have that now?)
Staff would not be required to check children's lunchboxes, or to take food from home off children. Some will though. Rules and regulations, however ridiculous, have strong appeal for some authoritarian types, who seem to be proliferating in the current environment. And it is only a matter of time before these food rules find their way into the home, and lunchboxes face official scrutiny before they can be opened.
There is no question that choking is a real hazard for young children. It is a real hazard for people of all ages, as are food allergies and intolerance, which justify a significant degree of control over what goes into children's lunchboxes. But are we approaching the point where young children will have to have everything they eat blitzed into mush before they are allowed anywhere near it? Infants do, and some very elderly do, but we seem to be well on the way to cutting out the middle years, when most people actually enjoy using the teeth God gave them.
Making up rules in response to very rare circumstances is nothing new, however. Some years ago the writer talked to a Far North woman who had had her chimney swept every year, in accordance with her insurance policy, but had been told by the sweeper that he was going out of business. Someone who, if memory serves, had been fiddling with a television aerial, had fallen off a roof, breaking his leg.
The rules that emanated from that demanded that the sweeper use scaffolding, harnesses and all manner of safety gear before he climbed more than 30cm off the ground. He had neither the inclination nor the means to comply, so was jacking it in.
In this new case, surely proper supervision at meal times and appropriate first aid training for staff should be enough to give most kids a fighting chance of surviving lunch. Apparently it isn't. So we're adding another layer of paranoia to children's lives. They already know that if they go outside unprotected the sun will get them, they've been taught that animal fats are bad for them, and now they're being told that if they eat an apple that hasn't been cooked or grated they might die.
And what can we do about it? Bugger all. The people who make these rules are neither elected nor identifiable. We have no control over them whatsoever. If every child was withdrawn from every early childhood centre in protest they might think again, but probably not. They would rejoice that no child would ever choke at an early childhood centre again. The best we can hope for is that parents will teach their children, as many are no doubt already doing, that food should not only be nutritious and healthy but enjoyed. And chewed properly.
Oh, and don't send them up on the roof to fix the TV aerial without scaffolding and a harness.