Just say no to the Small Poppy Syndrome

The real concern in this country isn't our jealousy of wealth and success, it's our knee-jerk meanness towards those at the bottom of life's heap

New Zealanders love to get in a tizz about the supposed Tall Popppy Syndrome. Y'know, we resent other people's talent and success, especially they're wealth. It's all bollocks, of course.

Still, just this week the boss of the charity KidsCan was blaming the tall poppy syndrome for criticism of the way they spend their money. Heck, rather than learn lessons from your poor reporting methods, it's easier to nurse a sense of grievance. 'We're so fabulous, the only possible explanation for all this criticism is jealousy"

The criticism in this instance was that the coats KidsCan supplies to some schools come from Chinese sweatshops. It seems to charity hadn't bothered to check its suppliers that thoroughly, but even so, its chair Rick Shera said it had to "balance whatever those issues are with the fact there is a need in New Zealand".

No, you don't Mr Shera, you need to have some integrity. As most of those kids you give jackets to will be able to tell you, 'two wrongs don't make a right'. You don't fix a problem here by perpetuating one elsewhere.

Fact is, most accusations of Tall Poppy Syndrome in this country are baseless; those invoking the phrase are mostly inflated egos rather than tall poppies.

More of a worry in this country is what I call the Small Poppy Syndrome; and we've seen its ugly face in recent weeks thanks to the indiscretion of social welfare minister, Paula Bennett.

First, she released the income details of two mothers on the DPB who had been involved in protests against her decision to cut the Tertiary Incentive Allowance. We're still awaiting the results of the Privacy Commissioner's investigation into that one.

Now, Bennett has announced that 307 beneficiaries are getting more than $1000 a week from the state. That is, 0.1 percent of the 310,000 New Zealanders on benefits. "Many" (we don't know exactly how many) have eight children or more.

The Prime Minister is demanding an audit; Bennett has said the government needs to ensure that no-one is getting more than they're entitled to. But nothing in the figures suggest that anyone is. So why raise that question, except to provoke more outrage against beneficiaries and endear her further to certain voters? It's like The Simpsons' Mr Burns saying, "release the hounds". As The Standard has pointed out, why not ask how many beneficiaries aren't getting everything they're entitled to? Isn't that just as worthy of an audit?

Really, it's voter-baiting that leaves an especially bad taste when it comes from a former DPB mum. Simply, she should know better.

The problem is that $1000 a week sounds like a lot of money when no circumstances are added. But it's not handed out willy-nilly. It meets a need and follows set protocols. Simon Collins, in typical Collins fashion, has laid out some pertinent facts in today's New Zealand Herald – that even in Auckland that accommodation supplement tops out at $225 (not much in that rental market); that Otago University's study of food costs reveals that it can cost over $600 a week just to feed a family of 12 (ten children and two parents); and that if one of those fruitful parents was earning the average wage, the family would be $449 a week better off than if they were relying simply on benefits.

I don't know about you, but what I conclude from those points is that the money being paid isn't extravagent and that the incentives to work are strong.

At very least you might consider that the basic DPB is $272 a week. Add in another seven children and you're only getting a little over $100 per extra child by the time you hit $1000 a week. Good luck to you finding a house with five or more bedrooms, paying your mortgage, buying food and decent clothes, fixing the washing machine... you get my point.

What disturbs me every time an issue like this arises is how many New Zealanders don't. They ignore the simple fact that we as taxpayers offer this financial support so that these children don't lack the basics of life through no fault of their own. Instead, they turn mean. Their first thought is, 'hey someone's getting something I'm not getting'. They start bashing those small poppies.

It's not a matter of resenting success, but it is jealousy. On the good side, it reflects how highly we still value a strong work ethic in this country. But that instinct quickly goes to a dark place in spite of the facts. At the heart of this syndrome is an insecurity that is always comparing ourselves with others (a branch of cultural cringe?), suspiciously checking that we aren't missing out.

In these instances we don't lack ambition or pride in our great achievers, we lack compassion.

In his new book The Politics of Possibility, past-Pundit Jon Johansson twice mentions the "meanness" the pervades New Zealand politics. And we see it at its worst when politicians invite the beneficiary bashers out to play, as Bennett has done.

I had the misfortune to be listening to talkback radio a couple of days after Natasha Fuller and Jennifer Johnston had had the details of their income shared with the nation. It was a bitter soup being cooked that day.

One woman said that as a teacher in her first year out of college she didn't get as much as these bludgers. Did she have children? No. The fact that the DPB was then no point of comparison seemed to have escaped her. Fuller and Johnston, if in her situation, would have been on the dole.

Then a young man came on to say that he was one of ten children and his father had worked hard to keep them all, and who did these women think they were? He didn't bother to ask who would care for their children if Fuller and Johnston returned to work, neither did he recognise that their original complaint had been a cut to an allowance that would help them return to work at a wage sufficient that they could afford childcare. But what this man did mention was that while his dad was out working, his mum stayed home to support the family. The fact that these 'bludgers' were solo mums seemed to have escaped him.

It was classic Small Poppy Syndrome. We need to name and shame it so that politicians realise the fire with which they're playing. If a politician uses ethnicity to provoke public anger, the phrases "dog-whistle politics" and "playing the race card" soon appear in the public square. And a good thing too.

But it's just as destructive and unacceptable to play the small poppy card. We need to say clearly to this government, and any others, that we won't fall for it.