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Practical wisdom

By Steven Schwartz - posted Wednesday, 5 January 2022

Julie Lloyd, 59 years old, was flying to Canada from London. With her grey hair and warm smile, she looked like a kindly grandmother. But looks, as they say, can be deceiving. To the ever-alert security staff at London's Gatwick airport, Julie was a potential terrorist who brazenly tried to smuggle a gun aboard a flight to Toronto.

Perhaps "smuggle" is not quite the right word. Julie didn't conceal the weapon; it was in the handbag she submitted for airport scanning. "Gun" is also not entirely accurate. The firearm in question was 6 centimetres long; it was held in the hands of a small plastic soldier. The toy was a present for Julie's husband, a former army signaller. She remonstrated with the security agent: "The gun is made of resin; it has no moving parts. There is no hole in the barrel; there isn't even a trigger."

Of course, the security officer could see all this for himself. Nevertheless, he insisted the tiny toy was a "firearm" and prevented Julie from taking it aboard the plane. In response to a journalist's question, a spokesperson for Gatwick airport admitted the story sounds "incredibly stupid" but explained that "rules are rules, and we must obey."


I had a brush with "rules are rules" thinking when I visited the Sydney office of Medibank Private Health Insurance after an extended stay abroad. I explained that I had been living in another country but had returned home and wanted to re-activate my health insurance.

"No problem," said the clerk behind the desk. "All we need is proof that you have returned to Australia."

"Well," I replied, "This office is in Sydney, and Sydney is in Australia. I am sitting right in front of you. Isn't that sufficient evidence that I am in Australia?"

"Not really," she said, "we need documentary proof."

To prove that I was not an apparition, I offered to let the clerk pinch me. Alas, the lady was not for turning. Until she saw an arrival stamp in my passport, a luggage tag, or a boarding pass, there would be no health insurance for me.

You may think these are minor irritants, risible stories that cause little harm. But sometimes, blind rule-following can lead to severe consequences. A teenage boy on a hike became lost in remote bushland west of Sydney. Exhausted and dehydrated, he made multiple calls to the emergency service from his mobile phone. The boy pleaded with the operator to send someone to rescue him, but no help was dispatched. The emergency service's rules specified a particular requirement: the caller had to provide an address or at least the name of the nearest cross street. The boy was lost in the bush well off the beaten track. There were no cross-streets; there were no roads of any kind. Eventually, the boy's phone battery died. By the time he was located, it was too late. He was dead. The boy may have died anyway, but hidebound adherence to a work protocol turned a dangerous situation into a deadly one.


At the subsequent inquest, the emergency service manager agreed that his operators had been "fixated" with obtaining a street address but explained that this was required by their training. The supervisor may not have realised it, but he had put his finger on one of the oldest controversies in teaching-the difference between training and education, between acquiring technical skills and becoming wise.

The airport security officer who refused to distinguish a toy gun from a real one, the health insurance clerk who would not accept my corporeal presence as evidence that I was in Australia, and the emergency call operators who delayed help to a lost boy were all carefully trained. They knew the protocols; understood the systems, and stuck to the rules-whether they applied or not.

Thanks to Covid-19, blind adherence to rules has become commonplace over the past two years. Governments have issued numerous health orders to mitigate the spread of the virus. Because the health restrictions left little room for judgement, children could not visit their dying parents, police meted out fines for infractions such as sitting alone on a park bench eating a kebab, and a child died because state borders were closed even for those in desperate need of medical care.

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This article was first published on Wiser Every Day.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz AM is the former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney), Murdoch University (Perth), and Brunel University (London).

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