IN AUSTRALIA we talk of the ‘tall poppy syndrome’: the tendency to disparage people who have the gall to do better than the rest of us.
Some other countries have similar practices. In Scandinavia it is known as ‘jante’.
It begins early in life. As kids we used to play a game called ‘king of the castle (and you’re the dirty rascal)’. This involved finding a high point, like the top of the monkey bars in the playground, and fighting each other to reach and stay there for as long as possible.
In Papua New Guinea the tall poppy syndrome manifests itself in the modern aberration of the traditional bigman. When someone attains the status of bigman the name of the game is to bring him down.
In Australia the tallest poppy in the land is the prime minister. A great deal of political effort is put into demolishing him.
The psychology behind the syndrome is not too hard to follow. It is all about jealousy and aspiration. We may not even disagree with what the tall poppy stands for, we just want to take his place.
Tall poppies are quick to recognise when people are after their heads and their respond by battening down and hanging on for dear life, just like the kid at the top of the monkey bars.
However, while the tall poppy stays upright they tend to colour all that goes on around them.
In Australia we even anthropomorphise the place where the tall poppy operates. In business it is ‘head office’. In our politics it is Canberra.
Most often Canberra is used as a pejorative to encompass everything that is wrong with our country. It is a place where the realities of everyday life are the most poorly understood.
Port Moresby has a similar status in the minds of many Papua New Guineans. It hangs like a boil on the underbelly of the country causing most of the pain that people feel and suffer.
Port Moresby and Canberra are places that aren’t really part of the country in which they exist. Strange people who are different to the rest of us live there.
When you stand back to analyse this it is easy to see what is going on. These tall poppies and bigmen, with their nefarious goings on, poison both the image of their position and the place where they practise it.
In most cases only some of us will dislike our tall poppies. This is okay because it is counterbalanced by those who like them. It becomes a problem when most of us dislike them.
Peter O’Neill currently represents, rightly or wrongly, everything that is rotten in Papua New Guinea, including greed, corruption and nepotism. He is seen to have poisoned not only the perception of himself but of Port Moresby too.
Whether this is true or not has yet to be proven but he has, through his intransigence, irrevocably damaged himself and his office. He has tarnished the brand.
People know this; they can recognise desperation and they are manoeuvring for the kill. The sensible thing for him to do now would be to hitch up his wagon and leave town as quick as he can.
If he doesn’t do that there is a real danger that he will bring everything crashing down around him. In this sense he has the future of his country in his hands.
Beyond that the danger lies in Papua New Guinea simply repeating the experience over and over again as more tall poppies reach for their moment in the sun.