Stir­ring the melt­ing pot

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Dennis Alt­man

our­nal­ist and au­thor Ge­orge Me­ga­lo­ge­nis has be­come ar­guably the most im­por­tant Aus­tralian po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor of his gen­er­a­tion. Aus­tralia’s Sec­ond Chance is the fourth in a se­ries of im­por­tant books chart­ing the po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and eco­nomic history of the na­tion. In some ways it is the most am­bi­tious, go­ing back to the ar­rival of the First Fleet, and Me­ga­lo­ge­nis of­fers a highly read­able, if par­tial, sur­vey of the history of white set­tle­ment.

Read­ers of Me­ga­lo­ge­nis’s pre­vi­ous books, such as the award-win­ning The Aus­tralian Mo­ment, will note his pre­oc­cu­pa­tions re­main re­mark­ably con­stant. A cur­rent La­bor front­bencher once sur­prised me by claim­ing the ALP was the party of mar­kets and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. In this phrase he sums up Me­ga­lo­ge­nis’s vi­sion of what mat­ters most in Aus­tralian history.

More than any other com­men­ta­tor, he makes cen­tral the link be­tween growth and mi­gra­tion; his is an Aus­tralia that is con­stantly rein­vent­ing it­self through the ar­rival of new set­tlers, and in so do­ing can con­tinue eco­nomic growth. Un­sur­pris­ingly there is no men­tion of the Greens in his book, and lit­tle con­cern for those who would ar­gue that con­tin­ued eco­nomic growth is nei­ther pos­si­ble nor de­sir­able.

“Our pe­ri­ods of strong mi­gra­tion have been our most suc­cess­ful,’’ he writes. “Our busts are distin­guished by the clos­ing of our doors, through poli­cies of racial se­lec­tion and im­port pro­tec­tion.”

View­ing Aus­tralian history through this lens leads to some in­ter­est­ing reap­praisals of our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, re­fresh­ingly free from par­ti­san­ship. In­deed Me­ga­lo­ge­nis de­lib­er­ately links Robert Men­zies to the legacy of John Curtin and Ben Chi­fley, and John Howard to that of Bob Hawke and Paul Keat­ing. He is less sym­pa­thetic to the pre­vi­ous three lead­ers, though en­cour­aged by Kevin Rudd’s call for “a Big Aus­tralia”, and echoes the re­frain of the Can­berra press gallery about the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with opin­ion polls and short-term fixes.

In writ­ing a history of Aus­tralia, Me­ga­lo­ge­nis is also en­ter­ing the on­go­ing de­bates about the “na­tional char­ac­ter”. Run­ning through this book is a ten­sion be­tween claim­ing con­ti­nu­ities in the sense of what it means to be Aus­tralian, and ar­gu­ing that it is con­stantly re­made through immigration. Thus he seizes on as­pects of early con­vict set­tle­ment as es­tab­lish­ing a pe- cu­liarly Aus­tralian way of view­ing the world, but this is hard to rec­on­cile with sim­i­lar claims for the cen­tral­ity of post-gold rush Mel­bourne in cre­at­ing a na­tional iden­tity, given Mel­bourne was not a con­vict set­tle­ment.

There are re­mark­able echoes of present rhetoric around asy­lum-seek­ers with the xeno­pho­bia of past eras, but Aus­tralian at­ti­tudes are hardly unique, as we see in Europe. Ju­di­cious se­lec­tion can sup­port a num­ber of in­ter­pre­ta­tions, and Me­ga­lo­ge­nis is a cap­ti­vat­ing writer who is also too prone to sin­gle ex­pla­na­tions.

While his is in some ways a new and stim­u­lat­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tion of set­tler Aus­tralian history, it also echoes many of the es­tab­lished tropes about Aus­tralian iden­tity. We are, he writes, “an in­tem­per­ate peo­ple with a para­dox­i­cal de­pen­dence on gov­ern­ment”.

Oth­ers have ob­served that Aus­tralia has “a na­tional in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex”, but to claim this is a prod­uct of “the decades of iso­la­tion from 1788 to the foun­da­tion of Mel­bourne” is too sim­ple. In­deed, as Me­ga­lo­ge­nis stresses, our sense of in­fe­ri­or­ity has ebbed and flowed with pros­per­ity, and the real strength of Aus­tralia’s Sec­ond Chance is to chart the causes and ef­fects of pros­per­ity through 200 years of set­tle­ment.

The fast pace of the writ­ing leads Me­ga­lo­ge­nis into con­tra­dic­tions, large and small. Thus on page 277 he writes of our “An­glo-Celtic self” as cen­tred in Perth and Ade­laide, but two pages later Perth is one of our “three cos­mopoli­tan cap­i­tals”. Ear­lier in the book he writes of Aus­tralia dis­play­ing a re­li­gious tol­er­ance un­like that of the US, yet he ac­knowl­edges the bit­ter Catholic-Protes­tant split that fol­lowed the World War I ref­er­en­dums on con­scrip­tion and lasted through the La­bor split of the 1950s and the emer­gence of the Demo­cratic La­bor Party.

Like many of our politi­cians Me­ga­lo­ge­nis is fas­ci­nated by the US, and there is a largely rosy view of the su­per­power that runs through the book, some­times in sur­pris­ing ways. Given the strength of anti-im­mi­grant feel­ing be­ing stoked by Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial fron­trun­ner Don­ald Trump, it is jar­ring to read that “Amer­i­cans never doubt that the mi­grant will em­brace their iden­tity”. Me­ga­lo­ge­nis stresses that both coun­tries have ex­pe­ri­enced ma­jor move­ments to re­strict immigration by peo­ple per­ceived as ‘‘other’’, in­deed in­fe­rior. At one point he writes of the very dif­fer­ent poli­cies adopted by Canada to­wards immigration in the early part of the 20th cen­tury, and it would have been re­fresh­ing had he writ­ten more about the par­al­lels and dif­fer­ences with both Canada and New Zealand.

At sev­eral points the per­sonal breaks through, and Me­ga­lo­ge­nis writes of his Greek par­ents and their ex­pe­ri­ence as mi­grants in the 50s and 60s. He is right in stress­ing the poly­glot ori­gins of the na­tion, but less able to in­te­grate his em­pa­thy for the dis­pos­sessed in­dige­nous in- habi­tants into the re­assess­ment of Aus­tralian na­tional iden­tity.

I wish he drew less on sta­tis­tics and more on imag­i­na­tive ren­der­ings of Aus­tralian history. I re­cently read Joan Lon­don’s novel Gil­gamesh, which brings to life the soldier set­tle­ments af­ter World War I far more than any sta­tis­tics can. An au­thor who seeks to de­fine some­thing as opaque and con­tested as ‘‘na­tional iden­tity’’ needs to take more heed of art and literature than Me­ga­lo­ge­nis does.

In tones that echo Don­ald Horne, he sug­gests that none of our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers quite mea­sures up to what the coun­try de­mands: “Aus­tralia’s po­lit­i­cal class was born think­ing small.” Aus­tralia’s Sec­ond Chance was com­pleted dur­ing the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment, and Me­ga­lo­ge­nis had no doubt that Tony Ab­bott’s was a lim­ited and anx­ious view of Aus­tralia. I imag­ine he feels far more com­fort­able with the de­ter­mined op­ti­mism of Mal­colm Turnbull. Like Turnbull, he be­lieves this is a coun­try that has the po­ten­tial to be greater than it now is.

But I doubt he would he be as likely to­day to com­mence the book with the claim that Aus­tralia is a na­tion “that is con­sid­ered the envy of the world”. Aus­tralians may have a sense of in­fe­ri­or­ity, but we com­bine this with an im­plicit belief that the rest of the world cares more about us than it in fact does.

On Me­ga­lo­ge­nis’s own count, Aus­tralia has ex­pe­ri­enced a num­ber of chances to flour­ish, built on wool, gold and, most re­cently iron ore. Like Horne’s The Lucky Coun­try, pub­lished in the last years of the Men­zies era, Aus­tralia’s Sec­ond Chance is a re­minder of the ex­tra­or­di­nary re­sources, phys­i­cal and hu­man, of a con­ti­nen­tal sized na­tion, and the on­go­ing fail­ures of the po­lit­i­cal class to seize these op­por­tu­ni­ties.

is a pro­fes­so­rial fel­low in hu­man se­cu­rity at La­Trobe Univer­sity.

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