Beneath the smiles it’s a blood sport
WRITING about politics is always a question of focus: the policy achievements and failures or the brawls and backstabbings? It’s a rare author (Paul Keating’s former speechwriter Don Watson is one) who can handle both narratives at once, capturing the human drama of ambition and betrayal while making sense of the big political picture.
The jacket blurbs for George Megalogenis’s The Australian Moment promise something for everyone: ‘‘ A sparkling narrative answering the big contemporary questions . . . a brilliant read,’’ writes Annabel Crabb, while Watson himself suggests the book is ‘‘ likely to become the essential short work on modern Australia’’.
A respected journalist for The Australian, Megalogenis acknowledges the contrariness of bicameral politics by building it into the structure of his book. He does it via the ruse of inviting five former prime ministers — Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Keating, John Howard and Kevin Rudd, along with Graham Freudenberg on behalf of Gough Whitlam — to comment on each other’s record. All were asked to ‘‘ think outside their own legacy egos to reflect on the positive contributions of one another’’, yet the first four evidently found this stipulation impossible, as Megalogenis admits: Hawke praises Howard so he can take a chip at Keating. Fraser gives credit to Keating, and Keating reciprocates so, together, they diminish Hawke and Howard by comparison. Howard applauds Hawke so he can reduce Keating.
Megalogenis’s summary does scant justice to the seething animosities that come out in the text, where Keating flays Howard for having ‘‘ let the racism genie out of the bottle’’ and Fraser refuses to comment at all on Howard’s legacy except to note sourly that ‘‘ I can say he was a good treasurer’’.
The premise of the book is straightforward. Having been dragged under by the various economic crises that struck the developed world between the 1970s and the early 90s, Australia has managed to avoid the three big crashes of the digital age: the Asian financial meltdown, the tech wreck and the global financial crisis. ‘‘ A single escape might be put down to luck, two to good management,’’ Megalogenis writes, ‘‘ But a third is the stuff of legend.’’
The Australian moment of the title represents the few years at the start of the new millennium when the Australian economic miracle became apparent, when it dawned on the rest of the world that ‘‘ a nation ... accounting for less than 2 per cent of world production might hold the key to the future’’.
It’s a bold call, given it could all fall apart tomorrow, but Megalogenis argues his case well. For all his years writing in and about Canberra, he understands the global as well as the national issues. He is no slave to political jargon.
This book goes out of its way not to alienate the general reader. Megalogenis is on top of the numbers and is good at explaining their human consequences, although his constant citing of inflation and unemployment rates starts to feel a little repetitive.
As the child of Greek immigrant parents, he is not shy about introducing personal and family experience into his analysis of sociological trends.
His account of the way Australia went from being the hapless and inevitable victim of every international economic downturn that came along to being the envy of the capitalist world is compelling and may yet turn out to be true.
Megalogenis likes to anthropomorphise the nation, to explain our economic success in terms of having ‘‘ grown up’’. Towards the end of the book he writes: Australia was another country compared to the frightened, fractured place it had been during the bad-hair decade of the 70s. Although the petty complaints of prosperity returned after the first phase of the [GFC] had passed, this too was in keeping with the new Australian maturity. What mattered was that we had got the big call right. The return to the more regular programming of whingeing was the responsibility of the leaders who facilitated it: because once the crisis was over, they resumed the confected rivalry of politics.
But is this an accurate summary of the story we have been reading? The word ‘‘ confected’’ sounds suspiciously confected.
The deeper narrative of Megalogenis’s account of the past 40 years is of political leaders willing to do whatever was needed to grab and hold on to power and to defend their records after losing it.
From the wild government spending sprees under Whitlam (1974) and Fraser (1982), to the Dismissal, Keating’s promise to ‘‘ do’’ John Hewson slowly for trying to introduce a GST (a