Stirring the melting pot
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.