Be­neath the smiles it’s a blood sport

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tom Gilling

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

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