Too broad an accent

Dennis Altman March 24, 2012

The Australian Moment.

By George Megalogenis
Hamish Hamilton, $32.95

GEORGE Megalogenis introduces his book with a bold claim: ''What if we are 'the last best hope on Earth' … The nation that reflects the best of the world back to it?'' This claim is based almost entirely on superior management of the economy during the past 40 years, a ''pragmatic version of deregulation''.

The bulk of The Australian Moment, however, is a detailed and rather economist account of mainstream politics during the past 40 years. Megalogenis is one of the country's sanest political journalists, with a genuine ability to analyse without the preconceived biases of many of his stablemates. But in the end his views reflect the dominant consensus of the chattering classes: Hawke is the best post-Menzies leader because he led the way in deregulating the economy.

Megalogenis hints that there were - and remain - costs to deregulation, usually through rather vague claims about a growing selfishness of Australian culture. What is missing is the link between the government policies he admires and the growing inequality about which he professes some unease, and which Wayne Swan has recently tried to introduce into political debate.

The strengths of the book stem from Megalogenis' access to all our recent prime ministers and the comments each is prepared to make about each other. Malcolm Fraser clearly prefers his political opponents to John Howard; Paul Keating and Bob Hawke are still squabbling about who was the more responsible for economic reforms. Yet a great deal is missing from Megalogenis' account. Thus while there are seven chapters on the Hawke-Keating government there is no discussion of John Dawkins' restructuring of higher education or Brian Howe's careful reforms of social security. Foreign policy is largely undiscussed, except when troops are sent abroad, and even here the treatment is cursory.

In his final chapter Megalogenis claims the three great changes in recent decades have been our engagement with Asia, the feminisation of the workforce and changes in media technology. Yet the bulk of the book has far less to say about these changes than it does about interest rates, housing prices and the size of the swing in every federal election since 1969 (which could have been compressed much more usefully into one graph).

He is most interesting in exploring longer trends, but the analysis fits poorly with the detailed chronology of elections and budgets. The discussion of changing cultural and social mores is largely based on an essay he wrote a few years ago on Christos Tsiolkas' novel The Slap, in which he spoke about the impact of ''women and wogs'' on our political culture.

While urging greater attention to ''Beijing and Mumbai'', Megalogenis remains far more interested in the US, sharing the preoccupation with domestic American politics and history of much of our political elite. This leads to odd judgments, such as the claim that Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd ''were essentially the same person'' - and the quite incorrect equation of indigenous Australians with African-Americans.

Megalogenis is of the same generation as Julia Gillard, but he has a cynicism that she lacks vis-a-vis America: ''Growing up in the '70s … switched abruptly from the wonder of the moon landing to horror of the Vietnam War,'' he writes, whereas Gillard seemed to forget the latter in her commitment to base some US troops in Darwin.

Good journalistic writing is not sufficient to sustain a book of almost 400 pages, and while there are flashes of insight, he is too prone to slip into cliches and generalisations: ''Australians are, by disposition, an obedient people. We like to be led and want government to look after us.'' As distinct from, say, Malaysians or Danes?

The thesis of The Australian Moment is fascinating, but it deserves a far more thought-through argument and one that recognises the equal claims of countries such as Brazil or Turkey that seem more likely than Australia to be seen as global models. Megalogenis reflects ruefully on the demands upon current media to produce constant news and analysis. It is unfortunate that there is not more time for our best journalists to step back, reflect more and write more slowly.

■Dennis Altman is professor of politics at La Trobe University. His first book, Homosexual: Oppression & Liberation, has been republished by UQP.

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