Tall poppies – or why I hate and love Australia

By Legal Eagle

Mercurius at Larvatus Prodeo has a post about Tony Abbott’s triathlon attempt in which he criticises Abbott as an “overachiever”:

Then there’s the overachievers. The people who are compensating for something. The people trying to fill the existential emptiness and smother those feelings of inferiority with accolades, approval and applause.

Mercurius isn’t alone in criticising Abbott for this. Health Minister Nicola Roxon said that while she admired Abbott’s drive, she thought Abbott would have been better off spending his time by developing policies. (As Catallaxy points out, there’s a large dollop of irony here, given that Roxon’s ministry is the one who keeps telling us that we should be fit all the time.)

Now, I’m no fan of Tony Abbott. Unless my brain falls out of my ear in the coming six months, I won’t vote for him. But I really take objection to criticising someone for “overachieving”.

It seems to me that this criticism of overachieving is a peculiarly Australian thing. Actually, it’s rare to see such criticisms aimed at sporting achievements (as in Mercurius’ post). Usually, sport is the only area which is immune. You’re far more likely to see it aimed at intellectual achievements.

I know that I’ve mentioned that I went to high school in the UK. My English high school was a crazy place in many respects, but it taught me to be proud of my intellectual and artistic achievements for the first time in my life. One of my English friends said, “Why do you always seek to belittle your achievements or play the fool?” The reason for that particular behaviour can be very well illustrated with a little anecdote from my primary school days, when I was in Grade 2. A teacher was asking whether any of the children played musical instruments. I put up my hand and announced (without meaning to show off) that I played the piano and the recorder, and that I was teaching myself the guitar. “Aren’t you a little smarty pants?” sneered the teacher, while all the class laughed at me. I learned that I shouldn’t display multiple talents in public, unless I wanted to be torn down and humiliated. Much better to play the fool. I know that SL has experienced similar treatment for displaying her intelligence and her physical talents openly (unlike me, she’s very sporting, and holds a black belt in karate, among other things).

In some ways, of course, I do like the Australian tendency towards egalitarianism, and not taking anyone too seriously. I vividly remember my first day at my English school. The headmistress said to me in glowing terms, “We’ve got a lovely girl to show you around. Her father is a Conservative MP.” I wasn’t quite sure how to respond – but I really had to bite my tongue very hard to stop myself from saying, “I won’t hold that against her.” (I’d already made about 5 social gaffes in as many minutes.) We don’t tend to be impressed with that kind of thing: what a person’s father does or hereditary titles. I think that this is a very healthy tendency.

It’s only in Australia that, after the annual American-Australian Leadership Dialogue, a passing driver would call out to our former Prime Minister, “Hawkie, you’re a bloody legend!” Bob Hawke reportedly replied, “Well, if I’m such a bloody legend, why don’t you give me a lift back to my pub?” And the fellow did. The Americans were gobsmacked (a nice illustration of the contrasts between Australia and America right there).

But I do think we have to be careful. I wish we valued intelligence more in this country. I also wish that we didn’t criticise people for overachieving. I suspect that this attitude contributes to the Australian diaspora of educated professionals (although employment opportunities are the main cause).

I worry for my daughter. I know that all mothers think that their children are marvellous, but Eaglet No. 1 is seriously pretty special. She’s a rara avis, blessed with beauty, coordination and cleverness. We’ve just had to move her to a different kindergarten because she was so unhappy at her previous one. I suspect that her intelligence and independence did not make her popular with the teachers. I sincerely hope that they didn’t begin the process of crushing her spirit. How sad it is when an abundance of talent is seen as something to be suppressed and mocked, not encouraged.

So next time you feel tempted to sneer at someone for achieving something, pause a little (even if it is Tony Abbott).


  1. Peter Patton
    Posted March 29, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    SL, your point about sport being the exception to the Australian tall poppy syndrome is very important. What the LPers are clearly blind to is that to the rest of sport and surf mad Australia, a bloke who can win triathlons and is a volunteer surf lifesaver is the closest thing we recognize as a god.

    The more these people sneer and ridicule Abbott, the more they are seen as sneering at and ridiculing Australian hoi polloi. This strategy has failed so many times before for the left. Will they never learn?

  2. Peter Patton
    Posted March 29, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Er sorry, that should be LE!

  3. Peter Patton
    Posted March 29, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    LE I think your experiences might also reflect a sexism that says “men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.” While we still have a way to go on that score, I think Eaglet 1 will grow up in a much more nourishing education system for girls than the one you – and I – had.

  4. Posted March 29, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I was unimpressed by the post at LP too, ‘though by the time I got there, the comments thread was 67 long… so I didn’t add to it. I still won’t be voting for him, but I think that it’s very impressive for anyone to complete an ironman.

    As for the idea that he should be spending more time on policy – FFS! Doing something physical, even just taking a walk, is often very effective thinking time. I know that if I am stuck on a problem in my own work, often the easiest way to resolve it is to take a walk. His mind doesn’t shut off just because he’s ploughing up and down a swimming pool.

    Umm… there is another country that does the tall poppy and intensely egalitarian thing just as well as Australia. That would be the one just over to the right on the map. Having lived in both places, I can attest to it. Better not be too bloody clever, if you can possibly help it.

  5. Posted March 29, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Congrats on criticising the “tall poppy syndrome” in the right way. If Abbott can do it, or even have a go at it, good on him. I’d question why his efforts had to lead all major news bulletins last night, but that’s not TPS, just a view on what’s big news and what isn’t.

    Too often TPS provides a catch-all defence for anyone in a prominent position whose ego prevents them from recognizing and dealing with valid criticism. Jeff Kennett; Sam Newman; the Packers; etc ad nauseam.

  6. Peter Patton
    Posted March 29, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    If Abbott’s exercise regime and physical fanaticism were very recent and all staged, (like all those tubbier political leaders we see hitting the treadmill in the weeks before an election), then buckets of cynicism might be called for. But this is precisely who Abbott is. It ain’t no stunt.

  7. Posted March 29, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I think the tactic is dumb, and I really don’t like Abbott one iota.

    Tall poppy may be part of it, the other part is saying ‘a politician should not have any sort of [human] life, they should work 24/7 and become porky and unhealthy and ignore their families’.

    If he were a Bush, being spotted pottering around playing golf for extended periods, that might be different. But I think people seeing Abbott’s effort will be reasonably impressed. These sports actually reach out to non jocks (such as myself) and say ‘grit, application and willpower’.

    He was a crap health minister, and he’s proferring little by way of policy at present- that’s the ground to fight him on. IMHO

  8. Posted March 29, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    LE, I can’t believe you’ve never been across the ditch! This should be remedied asap! 🙂

    I had a horrible experience when I was 13 (in Wellington NZ). Having got 93% in both Maths and English and 90% in Science at my first half-year exams at secondary school, when the nun who was our class teacher asked whose parents had been pleased with their report, I put up my hand. She rounded on me: “You!” she spat, “What were your parents pleased with?” I learned that you didn’t take pride in what you’d done.

  9. Patrick
    Posted March 29, 2010 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    a nice illustration of the contrasts between Australia and America right there)

    You wish it was. An American could have compared Reagan or Clinton depending on how they liked their eggs with any other Labor PM in the last half-century and come to the same conclusion in reverse.

    On the substance, I agree entirely. Being me, though, I would put it down to silly bloody lefties – probably not an analysis that appeals to you 🙂

  10. Posted March 29, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Mercurius does also out himself as an overachiever, so he also having a go at himself, somewhat.

    I think Tony Abbott has done an amazing thing completing this race, and I wonder if he will regret not resting today but that’s his choice. But I also admire the other 157 people who ran in his age category and who haven’t been plastered all over the media. It’s not the physical achievement that irks me, it’s the constant in your face of it all, as if it somehow makes him more Prime Minister material than the less athletic Kevin Rudd. This is probably because I’m more like KR than TA myself, so this idea that TA is pushing that to be worthy you have to be sporty really irritates me. I also wonder if the “Hey look at how fit I am” is meant to distract us from something else, like a lack of policies.

  11. Claire
    Posted March 29, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    My only comment is that I used to work with someone who competed in ironman triathlons, and he was really quite useless in the office – always arriving late and leaving early & half asleep all day. It’s not a sport that’s compatible with achieving at work.

  12. Jason Soon
    Posted March 29, 2010 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Nice rationalisation Mindy except Abbott competed in the half version of the triathlon last year. He’s been preparing for it since last year and the organisers invited him to participate in the full one so really unless Mercurious is claiming Abbott had enough psychic powers to predict he’d be leader of the Opposition this year in order to self-aggrandise his competing all his blogpost really boils down to is ‘Tony Abbott shouldn’t have competed in the triathlon which he has been preparing for since last year because he should know that as opposition leader he’d be able to milk maximum publicity from it.’

  13. Posted March 29, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    It does annoy me that this has been treated as hard news, page 1 of the Courier-Mail and top story on at least 3 ABC News radio bulletins yesterday. But yes, the sneering at Abbott himself is misplaced.

    It reminds me how angry I felt when Howard said Rudd was “full of himself” for speaking Mandarin at the APEC conference in 2007. I’m no fan of Rudd but it’s hardly a bad thing that our Prime Minister speaks the official language of the world’s largest country! This was particularly annoying coming from the leader of a party that is in theory meant to be pleased when individuals achieve things.

    I wonder if the Education Revolution includes plans for driving out the teachers who undermine the confidence of children and help to turn them into conformists scared to stand out. What a great service to Australia that would be.

  14. Posted March 29, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I understand, Jason, that Abbott has always been heavily involved in fitness, it’s just that the MSM have glommed onto it and can’t seem to let go that irritates me. This isn’t something he can control completely, but he does seem to revel in it.

  15. Jack
    Posted March 29, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Finally a post with some common sense. I am not a fan of Tony but the sneering, arrogance over at LP left me gobsmacked.

    I also find it ironic how the health minister sneers at Abbott because of his exercise regime and yet her department actively encourages people to try and get active.

  16. Posted March 29, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    I’m very glad you wrote this post, LE, because it is a pervasive feature (or is that a bug?) of Australian (and, it would seem, NZ) society that we could really do without. You know there’s something seriously wrong when an all-round talented kid has to change kingergartens because of it. That’s just a tower of nuttiness right there.

  17. Patrick
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 4:40 am | Permalink

    ok LE, I’ll be very clear that I have no truck at all with anyone on any side of the political spectrum who believes that ‘only the elite of a certain class, race, gender or group should succeed.

    But I would like to think, and hopefully I am not kidding myself, that this is much much less common on the right today than the negative equality school of thought on the left.

    Btw, I really hope you find the right place for your daughter. My kids are surely nowhere near as talented as her but they (ok just the eldest for now!) are in a school where they don’t seem to suffer for being smart – I would be apoplectic if I thought they did.

  18. Posted March 30, 2010 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    The hoary old Tories in the UK who believe that the lower class have a place and should stay in it.

    There are still some of them about, including this bloke, who has had too much of a hearing around Tory HQ in my view.

  19. HeathG
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    @LE 19:
    She wasn’t disobedient but she did often question why something was so or why something was done in a certain way. (That’s my girl!)

    It’s a fine line between conforming to stay out of trouble but also retaining ones individuality, spirit and willingness to question. The approach we are taking with Master L is to encourage him to listen and do what is asked – then after he has done what is asked to question why. I’m hoping this approach will help him stay out of trouble whilst not killing off his inquisitive streak and individuality.

  20. Posted March 30, 2010 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    LE, I wonder if there aren’t other factors involved as well? I ask because of the horror stories I hear from times before education was particularly bureaucratic about teachers in working-class areas telling students they were fit for nothing but factory work.

    However the box-ticking is just as oppressive to individuality and spirit. As a call-centre monkey I’ve seen far more than my share of dull, unimaginative bureaucracy, and the way it crushes new ideas.

    From a leftie’s side of the fence, encouraging a system where everyone is encouraged to be the best they can, while still instilling the idea that we have society-wide responsibilities, is very important. There’s a big difference between a left-wing viewpoint that supports people’s liberation, and one that sneers at achievement.

  21. Posted March 30, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    “However, when the rules are pointless, and just seem to be rules for the sake of it…I can totally understand why a kid would question them (in fact, I was notorious for it myself). Or when the rules are actually no good.

    Perhaps I’ve just bred a baby lawyer!”

    Correction- a baby legal policy wonk! Which in my view is no bad thing.

  22. Posted March 30, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    I wonder about the extent to which Abbott wilfully encourages media focus on things like this. I don’t think it’s meant to distract attention tfrom policy – he communicates policy very effectively, and does so frequently – I think it’s just playing to a certain appetite for ‘human interest’ stories in the media.

    My guess is that Abbott wants the media to focus on his personality, and helps to create stories that do just this. This highlights the contrast with Rudd’s personality – Rudd is, in some ways, much less open with the media about aspects of his personal life. It also tempts his opponents (for instance, Nicola Roxon) to attack him personally.

    Be interested what other people think about this interpretation.

  23. Patrick
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I think it is a blindingly obvious interpretation TimT, everyone (extra-especially the larvae rodeo) knows who is more ‘a man’ in the classical sense. No-one doubts the outcome of Rudd and Abbott in the ring – Abbott just wants to remind us 🙂

    Hell Julia Gillard is more a man in that sense!

    I think Abbott thinks he has a real chance of beating Rudd personally, and I agree that is exactly what he is trying to do.

  24. Posted March 30, 2010 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I was thinking also about things like the incident on 60 Minutes, with Abbott admitting to feeling a little ‘afraid’ of homosexuals – an odd statement by a politician, although at the same time it’s oddly disarming. I wonder to what extent it was planned (if it was at all)? It’s certainly still considered to be the traditional ‘masculine’ response, though not the ‘correct’ response.

    Rudd would surely avoid the question if asked; interestingly, I’m not aware that anyone in the media actually did ask him. And that is interesting in itself.

  25. Posted March 30, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Whoops. Should have cut out one ‘interesting’ in that above comment…

  26. Ben k
    Posted August 28, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    Are you brain damaged? The “overachiever” tag is partisan spin from the media duopoly in favor of Abbott. Abbott isn’t an achiever at all, he’s an opportunist, and a puppet for the neo-con faction of the Liberal party. It’s not tall poppy syndrome to hate seeing maggots on top of society by virtue of an non-meritocratic system of capitalist market wealth distribution. Ever uber rich person is necessarily a parasite, not a “tall poppy”.

  27. Henry2
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Ben, glad to have your input! I would just say that maybe democratic capitalism isn’t the best form of government/economics that we could have, but it certainly is far and away better than any others that have been tried.

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