The Australian Moment: How We Were Made For These Times
By George Megalogenis
Penguin, $32.95, pp 395
Given that most Australian journalists have a timeframe of 48 hours and an understanding of economics that revolves around drawings on napkins, George Megalogenis is something of an odd creature. In books like The Longest Decade, he has taken the time to delve into issues and look outside the dot-points box. And since both journalism and economics can be rather dismal professions, his willingness to reach optimistic conclusions can be refreshing.
Unfortunately, The Australian Moment is a disappointing piece of work, not straying very far from what Megalogenis has said before and plagued by some serious structural flaws. He interviews five former PMs but they actually add very little.
Megalogenis is interested in how several decades of pro-market economic reforms took Australia to its current favourable (compared with many other countries) situation. It is an interesting idea for a book, so it is a pity that Megalogenis constantly wanders off the point. This is most evident in the first section of the book, which deals with the Whitlam era. Right away, this seems like a dubious proposition, and it becomes even more questionable when Megalogenis notes that the interviews with the key figures of the time were conducted not by him but by Graham Freudenberg. Yes, that’s the Graham Freudenberg who is known mainly as a chronicler of the Golden Age of Gough. He was there at the time and never quite recovered.
Why on earth would Megalogenis do this? Any claim that the book might have to being a serious piece of non-partisan analysis takes a very serious hit from this alone. Even more, Freudenberg has little to add to what has been said before: all this has been well and truly done to death. It makes little sense to cast the Whitlam government as economically rational — or even basically sensible — although Megalogenis points to the 25 per cent tariff cut as a key piece of evidence. True, it was a radical move for the time, but the important thing about it was that it ran so entirely counter to the rest of the Whitlam record. And there are doubts as to whether Whitlam really understood the implications.
Megalogenis sees the Fraser government as characterised by the chasm between free enterprise talk and policy action. It did much to return a measure of stability to the political system and the government accounts, and its immigration policies constituted a substantial opening to the wider world, but at the end there was not much of a reform record.
Howard (in his capacity as Treasurer) managed to get some deregulatory plans onto the agenda, but it was Hawke and Keating who carried them forward, up to the floating of the dollar. In the interviews, Hawke and Keating spend most of their time sniping at each other over credit and blame. Hard to believe that they were once, well, not exactly friends, but at least allies. Get over it, guys, it was nearly 30 years ago.
They made important moves on privatisation, deregulation and protection, and they laid the groundwork for key structural improvements to the economy. Megalogenis notes that most of the reforms had the backing of the Coalition, but he might have also mentioned that the Labor government publicly attacked many of these proposals, up to the point when they implemented them.
This reinforces the impression that Megalogenis is too willing to buy into the Labor narrative. For example, is it really the case that ‘Keating was the first Prime Minister since Robert Menzies to leave the nation in better shape than he found it’? If you ignore the massive debt, perhaps, and the degree of social division that Keating had engendered by the end of his time.
Basically, it is not hard to make some figures look good if you are willing to run the economy on Bankcard and hope that someone else will pay the Amount Due. As for Keating himself, he remains as nasty as ever, insisting on attacking everyone despite Megalogenis’ efforts to focus on the positive in his interviews.
Megalogenis acknowledges that Howard picked up the tax reform ball and ran with it, and generally consolidated the restructuring momentum. It is, however, rather galling to hear Megalogenis complain that Howard returned too much money to taxpayers when the economy was doing well. This is a manifestation of the Canberra Disease: the peculiar belief that taxation is a sort of end in itself, and that the last thing a government should do is give money back to the people who earned it.
It’s an approach from the commentariat that is all too common: all Labor has to do is state its case, while the Coalition must continually prove its point. Most obviously, Megalogenis agrees fulsomely that the Rudd government saved Australia from the GFC with its stimulus moves. In fact, Megalogenis defines this as The Australian Moment. Yes, it turns out that the pinnacle of decades of reform was… a cash splash. One might have expected, well, more.
Megalogenis says that the Australian economic model constitutes a good middle way between the market-heavy system of the US and the efficiency-killing statism of Western Europe. Maybe so, but at present there seems to be little doubt as to which way the pendulum is swinging.
The Australian Moment is not a bad book, and is in fact considerably better than most books written by journalists. But it could have been better, much better. The problem is not a lack of information but a shortage of deep intellectual inquiry and even-handed scepticism.
Derek Parker is a regular reviewer for The Spectator Australia.