Paul Little at large
Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: A storm in a cereal bowl

A bowl of Weet-Bix is a tiny kindness. Photo / Sarah Ivey
A bowl of Weet-Bix is a tiny kindness. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The red-faced rage with which many commentators reacted to news the Fonterra-Sanitarium-sponsored KickStart breakfast programme was going to get $9.5 million from the Government provided delectable examples of hysteria.

From a crowded field, the best was probably the suggestion that this was the first step on the slippery slope to a Stalinist nightmare society in which children are taken from parents at birth to be raised in state-run battery nurseries. Some saw it as a cynical, opportunistic announcement, coming as it did at the same time as the Child Poverty Action Group is having its day in court over other aspects of the Government's concern for the poor. Hardly fair - cynicism and opportunism (usually accompanied by bumbling and condescension) are key performance indicators for this Government.

Those who find this sort of charity offensive can take heart from Fonterra head Theo Spierings' statement in the early days of the programme: "It's a business decision. I don't believe in charity."

It's all about growing the market, you see. But that probably won't be enough to mollify critics because, at the heart of their complaint is a deep-rooted unwillingness to see anybody apparently getting something that they are not. To hear them you would think these bowls of Weet-Bix and milk were being stolen from their own tables to be wasted on the feckless indigent.

The problem, they say, is incompetent parents. And how right they are, in many cases. By definition almost, a parent who can't provide breakfast isn't much chop. But the thinking seems to go beyond this, with a hint that if these kids are going hungry, well, it serves them right for having crap parents.

A more worrying aspect is the chilling way in which this fuss demonstrates how far we have come from being the caring, humane society we once were. We used to take pride in helping others and ensuring no one missed out. But where once there was pity and compassion there is now mean-spiritedness and envy - all over a bowl of cereal.

We love lists, especially those that compare us to other countries. How else can we tell whether or not we're worth anything? Our national self-esteem depends on our international rankings.

At least two generations have grown up in shame that we could no longer claim one of the world's highest standards of living, as we did in the 1950s - if you can call what occurred in that decade living.

So, loud hosannas greeted the release of the Better Life Index from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It may surprise you to learn we are still members of the OECD, given that in recent years we have shown ourselves to be singularly hopeless at organising, economics, co-operation or development.

But there we are on the index, scoring well in areas such as housing, safety and civic engagement. Why, 73 per cent of adults aged 25 to 64 have a high school qualification. Showed you, Chad. Take that, Somalia.

But that doesn't mean we're happy. True happiness depends on not comparing ourselves to others as psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky discovered in a piece of research she calls "Hedonic consequences of social comparison", that demonstrates unhappy people constantly compare themselves to others and care about the result.

As with people, so with countries - this one in particular. There will always be someone doing better than we are. We'd be happier if we set our own priorities and concentrated on achieving them rather than worrying about where we stand compared to the rest of the world. Perhaps we could start by bringing back compassion and a fair go.

- Herald on Sunday

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