Tall Poppy Syndrome

What is long should not be made short

Ever wondered why we cannot be the "clever country" or why we aren’t recognised on the international stage. Because we are held back by the ‘knockers’! These are the same people who would recommend that to be fair to the thumb, the index finger should be cut back to match the thumb. And to be totally fair, all fingers should be chopped to the same length!

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to bring to your attention a problem that has plagued our country since the early part of last century, even before. A problem that has devastating effects on both the social and economic sides of our society. This is the problem that is known as the “tall poppy syndrome.” It is the tendency we Australians have of knocking down anyone who bears any representation of authority, or shows even a slight sense of superiority. Success is often viciously begrudged. Notable examples include Christopher Skase, John Elliot, Alan Bond and John Laws. The majority of our sporting icons are exempt from this syndrome because sport is seen as being a higher priority as compared to academia and the arts. This is very much evident through the media. There is no question that the problem has shattering effects on those who fall victim to its all-encompassing wrath and we would certainly be better off without its existence. The cultural divide is evident in country versus city dwellers, white-collar versus blue-collar workers and private versus public education, to mention a few.

On the world stage, are we noted for our flourishing economy, our expanding medical and scientific knowledge base or simply our sporting heroes? Australia is widely appreciated as being one of the most sport-orientated countries in the world, a fact that we are no doubt proud of. The 2000 Sydney Olympic Games demonstrated a time of achievement, and inspiration, a time to celebrate excellence, and all wrapped up in the most exhilarating carnival atmosphere. Unfortunately, this makes for some major shortcomings. Most of the population does not understand or place value on the many scientific pursuits that people undertake. If I asked anyone in this room today to name a famous Australian, you would be more confident acknowledging a sportsperson than any other field of success. And what do people do when they don’t understand something? They knock it; because that is the only thing most people know how to do in that kind of situation. But it doesn’t stop there. The democratic style of our government means that our values are usually translated directly to government in a bid on their part to win extremely valuable public support. This lack of backing for academics by the government then means there will be less government spending for things such as research and development. Consequently, people working in these areas must look elsewhere for funds and facilities that most will never find. Take for example a scientist named Howard Florey, world famous discoverer of penicillin, and proudly Australian.

But hang on, he spent most of his life living outside of Australia, in Britain and the United States; places that could provide him with the necessary tools to carry out his research. His discoveries had a massive impact on modern medicine and he will go down in history as having made one of most important discoveries of all time. But for him to be able to go overseas to work and study was very fortunate, and many others may not get those kinds of opportunities, others that may have something to give that we are missing out on. Although it is not obvious at first, everything like this can be traced back to the “tall poppy syndrome”, a sad fact for Australia.

And it goes on. Many people have been crippled by its effect, and have suffered public humiliation just because they excelled in their pursuits. After the recent retirement of gold-medal winning athlete Cathy Freeman the newspaper columns and Letters to the Editor have been filled with “Cathy stories”. I quote from the forum in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Jamie Fairfield writes, ‘I couldn’t care less about her retirement. She was not a person I looked up to, moaning all the