When Governments Get Complacent, Anger Rises

When Governments Get Complacent, Anger Rises

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What do the fires and smoke around Sydney, the volcano eruption in New Zealand that left at least eight people dead, and Bougainville’s vote for independence from Papua New Guinea all have in common?

During a long run yesterday, thinking about the Australia bureau’s stories over the past week, I began to see a theme running through them all: complacency.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as “a feeling of calm satisfaction with your own abilities or situation that prevents you from trying harder.” Other dictionaries deliver even more scathing judgments, calling the complacent smug and unwilling to change even when confronting uncertain or dangerous situations.

But no matter how harsh the definition, there is no denying that complacency — “the great chewing complacency,” as Aesop put it — damages lives in ways that bring sadness and rage.

Let’s consider just the most recent examples, each of which offers its own insights on how a pattern of self-satisfied inaction might be broken.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison came to Sydney Tuesday, on a day when bush fire smoke was at its thickest, and spent less time talking about the fires than about a religious freedom bill.

He was immediately pilloried by Sydneysiders who have become frustrated with his government’s refusal to actively address climate change through sharper emissions cuts, and more firefighting help here in a country where volunteers do most of that work.

At one point, when asked about firefighters raising money online for equipment, Mr. Morrison declared that firefighters didn’t need more assistance because they “want to be there.”

That’s what did it. Outrage surged. The complacency broke, at least a little. The next day, he announced a boost of 11 million Australian dollars for more planes and helicopters to help firefighters on the ground.

The Lesson: Climate change complacency tied to vested interests (coal, coal, coal) can be much harder to dislodge than the complacency around adaptation, which allows for more immediate visibility. Also: people risking their lives (in this case, for free) are powerful weapons in any fight against the status quo.

The tour operators who brought dozens of tourists to an active and remote volcano in New Zealand had gotten used to the seeing the boiling crater lake and gas vents throwing hot fumes into the air.

They trusted local volcanologists, who said tour groups should be fine, and failed to plan for the evacuation that was needed Monday when White Island erupted, trapping 47 people. Eight have been confirmed dead and the bodies of another eight were in the process of being recovered as of Friday morning, for a total of 16 killed.

Ray Cas, an emeritus volcanologist at Monash University who visited White Island twice and immediately felt that tour groups should not be allowed, said he told colleagues in New Zealand about his concerns, but with 30 years of tour groups having passed through without incident, no one seemed eager to adjust or change.

“It’s the isolation and the lack of available of emergency services that is really a concern,” he said.

Now, New Zealand officials are just starting to discuss whether the tour groups should be banned, or whether more precautions need to be taken if anyone is to return to the island.

The Lesson: Tragedy, immediate and visceral, often does more to identify complacency and shift the dynamic than anything else.

When the Bougainville Peace Agreement of 2001 brought an end to the civil war that killed 20,000 people, many people in the region hoped Papua New Guinea would develop an equitable revenue-sharing deal for the mineral-rich islands before an independence vote arrived.

But in nearly two decades, little changed. And on Wednesday, nearly 98 percent of those who voted in Bougainville supported becoming an independent nation.

The Lesson: If you ignore people’s needs and desires they eventually break away. For New Zealand’s tourism industry, and Australia’s conservative coalition, it’s worth keeping in mind.

Now for the stories of the week.

  • The Year in Pictures: 5.6 million. That’s the number of images photo editors of The New York Times sift through each year to find the perfect photographs for our readers. This collection of images is a mere fraction capturing the drama since January. [See the photos]

  • Weinstein and His Accusers Reach Tentative $25 Million Deal. The settlement would not require the Hollywood producer to admit wrongdoing or pay anything to his accusers himself. [Read the story]

  • Lovers in Auschwitz, Reunited 72 Years Later. He Had One Question. Was she the reason he was alive today? [Read the story]

  • When a DNA Test Says You’re a Younger Man Who Lives 5,000 Miles Away. After a bone-marrow transplant, a man with leukemia found that his donor’s DNA traveled to unexpected parts of his body. A crime lab is now studying the case. [Read the story]

  • Bickering More After Kids? Learn how to avoid the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse. [Read the story. Subscribe to the NYT Parenting newsletter.]

Tell us what you think at NYTAustralia@nytimes.com.

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