The great explainer
He would be embarrassed to be so described, but George Megalogenis is one of the country’s leading intellectuals.
Academic Dennis Altman has called him “arguably the most important Australian political commentator of his generation”.
Megalogenis (BCom 1984) is a rare journalist in a time of frenetic, hyped-up, click-bait media.
He has chosen to slow down, leaving The Australian newspaper four years ago to concentrate on thoughtful, big-picture books.
They are ambitious books about Australia’s biggest challenges, yet he has the knack of being able to trawl through mountains of data and find the threads in our political, economic and social history.
We meet at a coffee shop – he orders two strong lattes in a row – to talk about his latest book, Australia’s Second Chance, published late last year, and his Quarterly Essay, Balancing Act, published in March.
Megalogenis is everywhere at the moment. He’s about to do a Wheeler Centre talk on the Mornington Peninsula. The following week, he will deliver the annual Manning Clark history lecture.
He’s at festivals and on panels, and last year his lanky frame walked us through a three-part ABC documentary, Making Australia Great: Inside our Longest Boom.
His Quarterly Essay argues that “the debate we have to have is on the role of government in the economy”. Both major political parties, he says, cling defensively to the open market economy when it is “exhausted” and unable to deal with the challenges of the 21st century, especially education, physical infrastructure and climate change.
The public is volatile, angry and mistrustful of our political system, yearning for a substantially greater role for government. Yet neither major party has made that leap.
“The default setting of politics in the 21st century – to trust in the market – has proven to be bad economics, even for Australia, the only high-income nation to avoid the Great Recession,” he writes.
“It has left us with gridlocked cities, growing inequality and a corporate sector that feels no obligation to pay tax.”
The essay was written before the July 2 federal election. Megalogenis says now that he always believed that counter-intuitively, it might be a conservative government led by someone like Malcolm Turnbull that would find it easier to shift the role of government, just as it was paradoxically easier for Labor to deregulate and open up the economy in the 1980s.
“The default setting of politics in the 21st century – to trust in the market – has proven to be bad economics, even for Australia.”
That hope seems dashed for now, with politics becoming more focused than ever on the short term.
“I’m not arguing for more intervention,” he says. “I’m arguing for a much more intelligent, evidence-based involvement for government when the market can’t do the job.
The Coalition had a poor result in this election, barely scraping back to power after a single term in office.
Citizens again displayed their disenchantment with established politics by directing a record percentage of votes to independent and minor parties.
“The major parties are still looking at the result as some sort of Australian version of Brexit or the Trump phenomenon, which is a protest vote. I still don’t think it’s a protest vote. It’s a very active message to both sides of politics that until you’re prepared to meet us, not halfway, but meet us on our terms, with a more active government, I’m not prepared to give you loyalty.”
Megalogenis, 52, is the son of Greek immigrants. His father, a poor fisherman, arrived in 1950 from the Greek island of Ithaca. His mother arrived in 1962 after then prime minister Robert Menzies offered free air travel to girls in her village.
Megalogenis remembers being bullied in primary school, and how the only positive representation of Greeks in popular culture at the time seemed to be Championship Wrestling.
But mostly, he didn’t think much about his Greek heritage.
He remembers that when he joined the parliamentary press gallery in Canberra in the late 1980s, there were only two darker-skinned journalists he can recall – himself and Indigenous journalist Stan Grant.
“Poor old Stan kept getting mistaken for a Greek,” he laughs. It wasn’t until his 20s and 30s that he started to feel and understand his Greek background.
It seems an obvious thing to say that Megalogenis’s background must be related to his deep interest in Australia’s immigration story.
If Balancing Act is about how Australia needs to respond to the challenges of this century, Second Chance is about how we got here, and that is a remarkable story of immigration.
We have flourished economically and socially when we have been an open, welcoming country, he argues. We have suffered when we have become scared and turned inward.
Megalogenis wants Australia to realise how special it is at this moment in history. We are unique among developed nations with our quarter of a century of uninterrupted economic growth. “No other economy has had a comparable winning streak to ours, and at a time of global instability,” he writes. Yet, we are again fearful, worried our luck will falter.
We have been here before. Spurred by the huge numbers of people arriving for the Gold Rush, Australia officially became the world’s richest nation in 1852, and the centre of this prosperity was Melbourne.
The city was, he writes, the world’s first middle-class economy, its population rising by more than 70 per cent in the 1880s, with a swaggering sense of optimism and opportunity.
That was a time when the population was split – almost half the people were born locally and half were born abroad.
“I’m talking about a much more diverse and confident culture and a country that can look after itself.”
All that changed. The boom was followed by a bust, and Australia turned inwards, fearful of foreign competition and invasion, mistrustful especially of Chinese immigration.
That would lead to the White Australia policy, which was, among all else, a disaster for the economy.
We opened up again with the immigration experiment after World War II, the largest wave of migration since the Gold Rush.
Yet it wasn’t until the 1970s that Australia rid itself of the last vestiges of the White Australia policy. Today, the biggest sources of immigrants are the century’s rising nations, China and India.
It is a different world, but there are obvious parallels with today’s tensions. Again, we are a population where about half of us were either born overseas, or are the children of immigrants.
Australia has been suspicious of Chinese arrivals, and the Irish, and the post-war ‘wogs’ and Jews, then the Vietnamese, and now Muslims. Throughout our history, the fears and suspicions have been similar.
“This is the second time in our history we’ve been in this position,” says Megalogenis. “The last time we were there we did some things that got us into a lot of trouble … The instincts now are not dissimilar to what they were in the 1880s.
“When Australians are sitting on a pile of cash, whether it’s been distributed equitably or not, when we are relative to the rest of the world Number 1 or close to it, we get greedy and we get fearful and we think that the only way to hold on to this thing is to not let anyone else in. We don’t want to share it. We almost forget, and it’s a generational thing.”
He says the election threw up all the old paradoxes. One Nation’s Pauline Hanson is back, with her policies of stopping Muslims from migrating to Australia.
Yet academic Anne Aly became the first Muslim woman elected to the Federal Parliament, winning in a marginal Perth electorate. “That tension is alive today between the open and the closed.”
The world has changed. Students now comprise the biggest movement of people globally in the past 15 years.
They arrive here to study, and many stay. They are middle-class and educated, and they are choosing Australia in great numbers compared with other countries.
He wonders about the differences between their experience and that of his generation.
While new arrivals after the war took up ‘cultural reference points’ such as football to fit in and become Australian, today’s arrivals can read and watch anything around the world, following their home countries’ cultural and political life with ease.
“The challenge for the culture is to include the new arrival quicker than we were included because that migrant is more mobile,” he says.
“But once they’ve made that choice, we should be able to convert enough of them to create a great country.
Great sounds a bit hubristic, I don’t mean it like that. I’m talking about a much more diverse and confident culture and a country that can look after itself.”
BY GAY ALCORN