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Society lulled into a false sense of security

By Paul Harrison - posted Friday, 3 April 2009

The furore over the police response at Sydney airport to the bashing death of an associate of the Hells Angels bikie gang once again highlights our false faith in systems, institutions, and structures, and our misguided belief that somebody else will step in to protect us in times of trouble.

At Sydney Airport, passengers assumed that security would stop the melee; private security staff assumed that the Australian Federal Police would stop the melee; the AFP assumed that the public or airport security would alert them to the melee via the emergency triple 0 number, and everybody assumed that “increased airport security” would come to the rescue. But in reality, no one was able to take complete responsibility.

This event highlights the weaknesses of seemingly rational management systems, and particularly, the danger that arises when we over-rely on these systems to manage our lives.


As well as being a useful and efficient means to manage resources, provide a degree of certainty, and solve broad organisational and societal problems, management systems also have the effect of removing creativity, community and autonomy from citizens, in the interests of efficiency and responsibility for the greatest possible part of the structure.

Philosopher John Ralston-Saul describes the dominant power system in the West as being Platonist, “[a] system which functions on highly developed levels of structure and law - [a] school of pure rationality and fear of the undefined and doubt”.

These rational systems take on a form of homeostasis, in that they regulate their internal environment, and attempt to maintain a stable and constant condition by restricting the influence of external forces. This internal focus also means that systems are unable to communicate with other systems, because protecting the integrity of the system is a critical component of its efficiency.

There are clear parallels to how we responded to the incident at Sydney Airport in the response to recent bushfires in Victoria, the US government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and even in the origins of the current global financial crisis.

In many areas affected by the tragic Victorian bushfires, residents who wanted to create clearings around their homes were prevented from doing so by laws that had no flexibility in them for individual council representatives, or owners of properties, to believe that they could (or should) make autonomous decisions. Despite this, some residents did so in defiance of council laws and in spite of fines.

Similarly, on Black Saturday, many residents assumed that they would be advised (by the “authorities”) whether they should stay or go, despite people from the Premier down, telling them that they should make their own decision whether to leave early or stay and defend their properties. The result was that many people waited until it was too late to make up their own minds. Their response is understandable, in that it suggests that because the system had long ago removed any autonomy on the parts of the local community many had, in effect, given over to the authorities to manage their affairs.


The 2006 US Government investigation into the Government’s response (PDF 3.16MB) to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, found that despite a National Response Plan (NRP), a National Incident Management System (NIMS), a Interim National Infrastructure Protection Plan (INIPP), and an Interim National Preparedness Goal (INPG) - all created after the September 11 attacks - a declaration of an Incident of National Signficance (INS) was required before the Federal bodies could respond. However, the report states that the “NRP lacked sufficient clarity regarding when and how an event becomes an INS”, and ultimately, when an INS was declared, it had become too late to save a large proportion of the population.

The report also argues that the creation of all of these systems made it difficult for authorities to be flexible in their response to the disaster and, among its 125 recommendations, recommended that local authorities be given more autonomy to initially declare events an INS (or something similar), and circumvent the convoluted bureaucratic process required to ask for assistance. It also recommended that better communication needed to be established between each of the bodies responsible for these systems, arguing that an all-encompassing communication system should be developed - another system to manage the systems.

Many trace the collapse of the world economy to the US sub-prime crisis, and a false belief that it would self-correct. In an article published in the Boston Globe on June 8, 2007, for example, it was reported that according to regulators "it would be a mistake to overreact to a market that is already showing signs of self-correcting at a time when little evidence has emerged that the broader economy is at risk". At a broader level, however, the current global financial crisis is a result of the laissez faire (literally, let do) system of allowing the market to be the only arbiter of global economic policy, based around a theoretical concept of the maximisation of economic utility.

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About the Author

Dr Paul Harrison is Senior Lecturer in Consumer Behaviour and Marketing at Deakin University, Melbourne. His research is focused predominantly on the social nature of consumption in all its forms. Paul’s blog can be found at

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