The Nanny State was officially born in 1965, in a Spectator column by conservative British MP Ian Macleod that is credited for coining the pejorative term, but Nanny’s spirit was around long before then.

In 1851, when the great sanitary revolutions of the nineteenth century were being debated, the London Times thundered in an editorial that the public was being “bullied into health by Mr Snow” and that “every man is entitled to his own dungheap”.

Dr John Snow is, of course, now revered as one of the fathers of modern epidemiology for showing the link between contaminated water and cholera outbreaks, and was once voted “the greatest doctor of all time”, out-ranking even Hippocrates.

At a debate in Sydney last night, titled “Welcome back Nanny? Civil liberties vs the public good”, Professor Mike Daube, president of the Public Health Association, took us on tour of Nanny’s history, arguing that in modern times she most often finds employment whenever new public health measures are mooted.

Her biggest employers, he said, have been the tobacco, alcohol and junk food industries and their friends, who ensure Nanny is invoked whenever policies are proposed that might affect their interests.

It’s timely to have some understanding of Nanny because among his many hats, Daube is also deputy chair of the Preventative Health Taskforce, which handed its report on a National Preventative Health Strategy to Minister Roxon on Tuesday.

The Strategy provides a blueprint for tackling the burden of chronic disease currently caused by obesity, tobacco, and excessive consumption of alcohol.

So you can see why it’s likely we will be hearing quite a few loud voices putting Nanny to work in coming times. If the Taskforce has done the job they were asked to do, they will be proposing a raft of measures likely to upset powerful lobbies.

And unlike the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission, whose members packed up their desks once their report went to Roxon this week, the Taskforce was appointed for three years, so we can expect to be hearing more from them.

Daube’s historical tour also illustrated that once policies derided as Nannyish are implemented, the opposition generally dissipates quickly – we now hardly think twice about measures that were once reviled, such as compulsory seatbelts, drink driving laws, and workplace smoking bans.

Tony Abbott was also on the bill last night as the Nanny State’s antagonist, and many in the crowd were anticipating some entertaining sparring, with the spectacle of sparks flying.

But Abbott was punching below weight and was, as one observer noted, showing all the symptoms of the “depression of opposition”. Maybe he was tired, or had other things on his mind.

Sure, he had the crowd laughing more than a few times. But there was not much substance or passion.

We learnt that he doesn’t support NSW laws which came into effect yesterday banning smoking in cars carrying kids, and that he also fumes about double demerit points on long weekends.

Predictably enough, he doesn’t support restrictions on junk food marketing, and finds much of the debate about junk food a “politically correct form of snobbery”.

He can’t, for example, see the difference between a crème brulee in a swanky French restaurant and an ice-cream from the Golden Arches (Rosemary Stanton’s sotto voce comment in the audience was that only one comes with toys for kids).

His most interesting observation came when asked about what it takes to get legislation through Cabinet.

He said three factors counted: how hard it is to do; how closely it conforms to the values and principles of those around the Cabinet table; and whether is it going to be politically popular or difficult. Or, as he summed up, “the feasibility, desirability and popularity.”

It’s a salient reminder for those who believe evidence should be a central driver of policy — it didn’t even rate an explicit mention.

It’s quite likely that forthcoming debates about the Preventative Health Taskforce recommendations, whether in the headlines or around Cabinet tables, state and federal, will be influenced just as much by sentiments about Nanny as by hard-headed analysis of the evidence.

As much as Daube would like to see Nanny retired, it would be extremely premature to predict her demise.