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A short essay on sycophants, toadies & arse-lickers

SycophantPHIL FITZPATRICK

TUMBY BAY - Bill Brown’s last couple of chapters of his ‘A Kiap’s Chronicle’ reminded me of all the sycophants in the higher echelons of the Australian Administration in colonial Papua New Guinea that field staff had to deal with prior to independence.

A sycophant is a person who acts submissively (but insincerely) towards a more important person in order to gain advantage. In colloquial terms, dating back to the 16th century, they are known as arse-lickers.

One of the key aspects of an arse-licker is to tell other people, especially superiors, what the arse-licker thinks they would like to hear rather than what they need to hear.

Those colonial sycophants did an enormous amount of damage before PNG’s independence in 1975 and their legacy still lives on in the way Australia’s foreign affairs department operates today.

Sycophants have been around since the world began, of course. And especially where you have anything resembling a bureaucracy you’ll surely find them.

They are a self-perpetuating breed of hangers-on.

A lot of managers in any sort of organisation tend to appoint people in their own image.

A baby sycophant somewhere in middle management who eventually crawls up the bureaucratic ladder to replace their boss is often a more youthful image of that boss, right down to the way they think, speak and dress.

In that sense, sycophantism is almost impossible to eradicate.

That’s why incoming political leaders commonly conduct purges to rid themselves of their predecessor’s sycophants and install their own arse-lickers instead.

You know when this has happened when all the people under a new leader start to sound exactly like the leader, right down to their accents, physical mannerisms and even clothes.

We will know, for instance, how successful PNG’s new prime minister is in managing people under him when they start singing in church choirs, openly confessing their past sins and releasing critical reports hitherto kept secret.

I imagine there are a lot of senior people in the PNG bureaucracy who are closely watching James Marape to identify these and all of his other idiosyncrasies so they can copy them.

In another context we would call this their survival instincts at work.

Sycophant factories work really well in PNG. Papua New Guineans are past-masters at telling you what they think you want to hear rather than what they really think.

I don’t know how many times I’ve taken people aside and asked them, both before independence and afterwards, “What do you really think?”

And did I ever find out? Of course not. That would have been silly. Why would an individual separate themselves from the pack and make themselves vulnerable?

James Marape, despite his questionable political history, seems to have made a conscious decision to be different. He has decided to remake himself in an entirely different mould.

The Marape before 18 May and the Marape since 18 May seem to be two different people.

Whether this is a cynical bid to assert power, an impractical hope or a genuine transformation is hard to tell.

But one thing’s for sure. Watching his sycophants and arse-lickers at work is going to be very interesting.

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