Is the tall poppy syndrome ruining australia?

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In the Richard Searby Oration I spoke of Australia’s new “golden age”. I find that sometimes the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ is killing Australia.

I would be interested in your views and you can find a link to the video here.

Tall Poppy Syndrome is Killing Australia

Australians are a perverse lot.

The fact that we have been recognised as the second most liveable country in the world and Melbourne the world’s most liveable city, should give us cause to celebrate. We somehow cringe at these titles.

What is it about the tall poppy syndrome that stops us from celebrating success? We do not, in this culture, allow people to celebrate what they are good at. If they did, we would tell them that they are “full of themselves”, or, “up themselves”.

 We have perhaps taken our egalitarian nature, which is essentially good, to a level that it is doing us harm. It is doing us harm because the egalitarian nature and the tall poppy syndrome in preventing us from celebrating success does three things:

1. It forces people with high ambition to either hide the ambition or reduce the ambition.
2. Perhaps worse, it stops us from celebrating the success and enjoying today for the things that we have done well.
3. When we have done something well we like to look for an external cause such as “luck”.

Let me give you three examples to demonstrate each of the above points.

When incredibly successful Australians return from overseas rather than celebrating their stories for their friends and families often wish that they do not speak too much of their success. They are encouraged to keep those stories to themselves. But you do not even have to be incredibly successful to have pressure to keep silent.

A good friend of mine has been a nanny in Europe for the last 15 years. She is a very good nanny. She works for some of the wealthiest families in Europe which means they are normal working week would have in London for two days, Geneva for three days in Paris for two days each week. When she first came home to Australia and people asked her “what is your normal work week” and she answered with your travel plans she very quickly got the impression that people thought she was full of herself, merely because she travelled to 3 exotic cities every week.

People did not look behind the reality of each of the cities being a mere one hour flight from each other. It was like her saying that she spent two days each week in Melbourne, three in Adelaide and two in Sydney. If she said this, people would just think that is a normal Australian life for a job that requires travel.

But because she had been in Europe, and the cities were somehow exotic, she quickly learned to tell boring stories, because she would be criticised too much for talking about what she actually did do.

Australians also find hard to believe that we are the world’s most liveable city in the world’s second most liveable country. We fail to look around us and recognise that here, in Australia, we have created a society that according to outside assessors is amongst the best, if not the best form of life in all of human existence.

You do not hear the Occupy Melbourne people saying this.

It is interesting to look at recent data. The old saying of the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer is simply not true. In each of the OECD countries since 1980 the rich have been getting richer but the poor have been getting richer as well. It is true that the rich have been getting richer faster than the poor have been getting richer in each of the countries and this wealth disparity is something that needs to be examined and checked.

In Australia the top 10% have become wealthier by 4.5%  per year since 1980, and the lower 10% have been getting richer at 3% per annum since 1980.

But it is interesting to look at the rate at which Australian lower 10% have been getting wealthier. Three% is a very good growth rate. Indeed in each of the other only CD countries in the bottom 10% have become richer on average by about 1%. The lower 10% in Australia have been doing much better than lower 10% of other OECD countries.

What is even more interesting is that the top 10% of other OECD countries have increased their wealth at a rate of around about two% per annum. The lower 10% of Australians have improved their wealth at a rate faster than the wealthiest 10% of OECD countries.

Not only have the top 10% in Australia been getting richer faster than the rest of the OECD world, but our bottom 10% have also become richer faster than the rich in the rest of the world.

Whilst we should continue to strive to improve our wealth disparity, surely we should be sitting back and celebrating this remarkable point about Australia: that our poor are getting richer faster than other countries rich are getting richer.

But we find this hard to believe. It is a bit like Australia saying that we escaped the Global Financial Crisis because of the mining sector. This is too simplistic. It gives us an ability to simply say we were “lucky”.

Why cannot we recognise that in escaping the global financial crisis we are seeing the culmination of three decades of very good policy across all political parties? What saved us from the GFC was a combination of a flexible exchange rate (thanks to Hawke and Keating) a flexible labour market (thanks to Howard and Costello), a strong and well regulated banking sector that has not collapsed (two in Australia would look to our four banks as saviours?) and, yes in part, the mining sector.

Whilst we are lucky with our resources, the other three factors were a result of good planning. Why don’t we celebrate this?

When I was being interviewed for the role of CEO of the Committee for Melbourne I was asked by the board “what do you like about Melbourne and why do you want to come home?”

My answer was simple in that I said two things.

“You can drink water from the tap and you have the MCG.”

Whilst the board thought I was being a bit flippant let’s look at this. The fact that you can drink water from the tap says a lot about our infrastructure. 80% of people on this planet can’t drink water from the tap. If you can you are in the wealthiest 20% of people in the world. This very simple act, that we take for granted, says a lot about how much of our country works. There really are not many cities in the world where you can drink fresh clean and tasty water from the tap.

I consider this to be an enormous luxury. It is why when I go to a restaurant or cafe I refuse to buy bottled water. Why pay for water to come from the other side of the world with all of the greenhouse emissions in ignorance of what comes out of our tap?

And the MCG. We take that great icon for granted. Think about this: where else in the world can the family still afford to go to a major stadium and 100,000 people and get home safely without any flares rights for violence?

In North America is too expensive for a family to go.

In Europe it is too dangerous and the crowds are segregated by supporter base and you often see rights flares and violence.

Where else in the world to 12, 13 or 14-year-old girl say to their parents “hi Mum, I don’t, I’m going to a mass public event with 100,000 people and no adult supervision” and Mum says “see you when you get home dear”?

Next time you go to the MCG have a look after the game at the number of 12, 13 and 14-year-olds in groups unsupervised. Ask yourself where else in the world could this happen?

When I was at the MCG for the 2010 grand final replay around about halfway through the final quarter I turned to my two brothers and said “boys, suck this up. This is about as good as the world gets. Here we are in a massive stadium with 100,000 people enjoying a game and there is no hint of violence and there is a sense of collective enjoyment. And above all our team is winning! This is as good as life gets”.

Because we have such a failure to recognise what we are good at we have a failure to recognise what is good. Because we don’t celebrate success in individuals we fail to see success as a society.

Ours is an excellent society that we should celebrate, not hide from behind platitudes like words “lucky”.

The greatest threat to us is complacency that comes from not recognising how good we are and therefore not fighting hard enough to protect. Australia is in a very good position to maximise the next half a century but our greatest threat is in not recognising what a good position we are in.

More discussion like this is in: 


4 Replies to “Is the tall poppy syndrome ruining australia?”

  1. I’m so glad someone addressed this, I’ve been quite perplexed by the concept too. I think tall poppy syndrome is holding back Australians.. yes luck has been inferred to many accomplishments, it doesn’t come off as humility more as a fear of others success/happiness and an inability to feel happy for others. “Ours is an excellent society that we should celebrate” indeed. If more people thought like this, tps would be hopefully replaced by a mindset that seeks the well being and happiness of others.


  2. Bravo! Raising awareness, sparking off considerations of the effects which tall poppy syndrome has across cultures/societies and how things could be instead really is valuable. Thank you for putting this out there Mr McLeod. Having awareness and wanting positive changes means we are more likely to reject tall poppy syndrome and instead of succumbing to it, act in positive, genuine, celebratory ways, encouraging people to share/welcoming people when they share, their great moments/experiences – and being able to share our own naturally. The more people understand and turn toward the positive, the higher the likelihood of achieving true cultural changes.


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