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,

12 thoughts on “A moment that has passed?

  1. ”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. ” Pub talk .

  2. Megalogenis in a reply to someone on his OZ blog says;

    “The Green agenda struggles with both (markets and multiculturalism) because it assumes there is a limit to our carrying capacity. It says you have to control markets and limit population growth.”

    Megalogenis’ words are straight forward and without qualification. He clearly indicates his belief that Australia has an unlimited (infinite) carrying capacity for human population. Only something that is infinite and has infinite resources can have an infinite carrying capacity. Megalogenis’ belief that Australia is of infinite size and has infinite resources disqualify all his views from being taken seriously. If he cannot get such basic physical quantitative thinking right then we cannot trust a single word from his pen.

  3. I really don’t understand love for the substance-free Rudd. He was terrible at reform, because he couldn’t actually get anything done. His fetish for growth at all costs more than made up for any half-hearted attempt at (under) pricing carbon. He was good at promising punters of all stripes what they wanted to hear, but ultimately there was no there there.

  4. @Sam

    The substance free thing is exclusively spin from the Gillard clique. She showed her true colours in the March challenge when she was much more interested in denying the Rudd option to the labor caucus than anything else.

    If Rudd did in fact suffer the grave defects of morality, personality and capacity claimed by the Gillard clique (and by them alone) you would have expected someone apart from Gillard and her immediate supporters to notice there was a psychopath in the lodge. Ken Henry has denied it was impossible to get a decision from Rudd and the paralysis claim is inconsistent with the policy output of the government, Rudd’s wide support from other national leaders, or statements from ministers like Stephen Smith who supported Gillard but declined to join the auto de fe against Rudd while confirming they would remain in the cabinet if he returned to the prime ministership.

    I do not have any great love for Rudd and think he was too timid in many policy areas. What moves me is amazement at the mythology built around his government and how favourably Rudd’s policy record, dismal as it was, compares with his successor.

  5. ‘second-hand people…’

    I think this should be ‘second-rate’, although perhaps your new rendition is to be preferred ProfQ.

  6. @Ikonoclast
    I haven’t read the book, but that comment sounds fair enough to me. Isn’t including limits-to-growth considerations in policy choices going to throw up problems? Imposing a cabon price, limiting water use, requiring energy efficiency, etc, all throw up political problems. If you assume that these problems don’t exist policy choices become much easier.

    Obviously dealing with reality rather than fantasy must have a pay off at some stage but it isn’t a pay off that the modern democratic process captures very well.

  7. @Alan
    Yeah, that’s our host’s opinion too. It’s totally at odds with my impression of domestic politics over the last five years though. I’m not a huge fan of Gillard, but she’s achieved far more than her predecessor (though usually with the worst and most cynical of intentions).

    Rudd was a unique combination of bewildering political naivete, inflated sense of intelligence and competence and imagination, naked populism, environmental centrism, social conservatism, and obsession with process over outcome. I have no direct experience of his more personal failings, but his colleagues and underlings tell a very unflattering story which I’m inclined to believe. Even without these however, my dislike of him as a political figure would remain.

  8. @Sam

    And yet Rudd achieved quite a lot in the face of a hostile Senate and, it is increasingly obvious, a hostile deputy prime minister.

    Passing legislation is no doubt admirable. Passing legislation that is wildly unpopular because you have failed to communicate its need to the electorate is a pointless activity. It is especially pointless when your political incompetence is such that a leader as hopeless as Tony Abbot looks likely to be the first prime minister since Fraser to come into office with a majority in the Senate.

    Fraser could not immediately repeal the great Whitlam programs like Medicare because those programs enjoyed popular support. Abbot will not have that problem. I guess he will continue to subject school kids to NAPLAN though, so we can all rest easy.

  9. You’re very charitable indeed to Megalogenis, John!

    I agree that the “from above” aspects of the history are compellingly presented, but really they are secondary to the incoherence of the political argument he is making. That’s because reform politics requires not just a technically correct agenda, but one that can mobilise a popular constituency.

    The ALP and the unions won the workers’ movement to systematically sacrifice for Australian capital in the 1980s, but that project is now exhausted. That’s the bit that I wanted to smack over the head in my review at Left Flank last week, because while you can forge all the elite consensus for reform you want, it’s no use if the lower orders refuse to take the medicine.

  10. I am reminded of Stanley Baldwin’s retort to F E Smiths comment that the new cabinet had ‘second rate brains’: that is better than second rate characters

    WE have both. or is that third rate.

    Not that the ‘liberal concensus’ was ever right or Liberal, Sir Robert Menzies would have been horrifed at the libertarian drivel that Hockey et al expouse.
    In Sir Robert’s words
    The country has great and imperative obligations to the weak, the sick, the unfortunate. It must give to them all the sustenance and support it can. We look forward to social and unemployment insurances, to improved health services, to a wiser control of our economy to avert if possible all booms and slumps which tend to convert labour into a commodity, to a better distribution of wealth, to a keener sense of social justice and social responsibility. We not only look forward to these things, we shall demand and obtain them.

  11. We seem to have arrived at a very conservative consensus. Mega fell in love with the Keating ‘reform’ rhetoric of the 80s and doesn’t seem to be able to get beyond it. The result is he ploughs this imagined ‘apolitical’ consensus furrow that makes him (in his own mind) beyond criticism. My take on him is that he perceives, like Francis Fukuyhama, that he is beyond history – the proverbial last man. It is a sort of bland view-from-nowhere that postions his reform rhetoric outside the possibility of any power-based analysis. It also suits his role as a News Ltd journalist who doesn’t want to be seen to be a creature of the right or left.

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