A moment that has passed?
As I wrote before, my immediate (over-)reaction to George Megalogenis The Australian Moment, was driven by the ageist generational clichés that started on page 1, and reappeared periodically thereafter. But I promised to write something about the serious content of the book and here it is.
My one-line summary is that this is probably the best exposition of Australia’s political history, over the period of market liberal reform, and from the viewpoint of the reformers, that we have seen, or are likely to. In particular, it’s better than the main rival, Paul Kelly’s End of Certainty.
The primary new source for the book is a series of interviews with five of the six prime Ministers whose terms in office encompass the period of transformation covered by the book. Gough Whitlam declined an interview, but allowed Graham Freudenberg to speak on his behalf. In addition, Megalogenis makes good use of declassified State Department cables, which report off-the-record discussions between US officials and Australian politicians, giving uncensored (if not always honest) observations both on policy issues and on their own colleagues. This is combined with Megalogenis’ own observations drawing on his long career as a political journalist.
Inevitably, the result is an insiders’ view of the Australian political scene. Given these sources, there is little room for critical perspectives on the dominant story of Australian policy, in which heroic reforms undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s laid the foundations for our current prosperity. This story is common ground for Hawke, Howard and Keating: the only dispute between them concerns how the credit should be allocated between them.
Moreover, while the 1980s reformers present themselves as making a sharp break with their immediate predecessors (Whitlam for Hawke and Keating, and Fraser for Howard) Megalogenis notes some important continuities. It was Whitlam, after all, who made the first break with key elements of what Paul Kelly called the Australian settlement including tariffs, White Australia and Imperial benevolence.). Fraser, in his time in office, was seen as a radical rightwing reformer, sympathetic to Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, a fact somewhat obscured by his subsequent shift to the left.
Within the constraints imposed by the nature of his source material, and with the exception of his forays into generational cliché, Megalogenis has done a first-rate job. He makes judicious use of the inevitably self-serving accounts presented by his interviewees, balancing them in a way that makes for a convincing assessment. He’s also good in picking out the key events that have defined Australian politics over the last forty years, starting with the acute observation that, if Whitlam had won the ‘Don’s Party’ election of 1969, the course of events would have been entirely different, at least in terms of the political careers of Whitlam and his successors.
The main thesis of the book is embodied in the title, and represents an explicit counter to Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country, where the title is expanded to the observation ‘Australia is a lucky country, run mainly by
second-hand second-rate people[1,2] who share its luck … According to the rules Australia has not deserved its good fortune.’ Megalogenis’ argument, widely shared among the elite is that the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s left us well placed to avoid the recession that engulfed much of the developed world.
I’ve criticised this view elsewhere, and won’t repeat myself. I would observe though, that the text of The Australian Moment is much less triumphalist than the title would suggest. Notably, Megalogenis observes that, despite outdoing us in the reform stakes, New Zealand has performed much worse in macroeconomic terms than Australia.
Like Gough Whitlam, I suspect Megalogenis’ book has appeared too late. If it had come out in 2009, when the successful macroeconomic stimulus that drove our escape from the crisis was generally endorsed, and when the leaders who designed and implemented it were still in place, the story would seem convincing. Now, we are faced with parties and leaders who will say anything and clearly believe in nothing, except the desirability of holding and dispensing the rewards of office.
It was purely a matter of luck that Rudd was in office at the time of the crisis, and that Turnbull, as Opposition Leader, was constrained by the need to present a policy alternative with some intellectual credibility. Given the way our political parties have evolved, Abbott and Gillard are far more typical examples of the leadership on offer. And, without saying anything against his successor, we were also very lucky to have Ken Henry in charge at the Treasury.
Still, even if you don’t accept the central thesis, and even if you have to swallow hard every time the word ‘generation’ appears, The Australian Moment is essential reading. However much we might deplore it, market liberalism has defined the past three decades and it must be understood if we are to do better in future.
fn1. I’m sure I remember reading ‘men’ for ‘people’ in the original edition, and this was accurate in 1964. But the Penguin website gives ‘people’ as the authoritative quote, and over the last decade or so, Australia has proved itself to be a land of equal opportunity as far as second-rate leadership is concerned.
fn2. Looking at our current situation, my only quibble is that, doubtless with the rosy view of hindsight, I would now want to substitute ‘third-rate’. I doubt that there has been any time in Australian history when the choice of leaders on offer has been so uninspiring. On the other hand, the leaders of whom Megalogenis is writing, from Whitlam to Rudd, offered a substantially higher level of ability,