In the field of ‘big-picture’ books by journalists about Australian politics, Paul Kelly is the hall of famer who still rightly claims attention. But the rising star is George Megalogenis.
Megageorge as he is widely known has recently produced two important books. The Longest Decade told the counter-narrative story of the similarities between Paul Keating and John Howard. So good was it that I believe Paul Kelly paid it the ultimate compliment by trying to write the same tale in his own The March of Patriots. Megalogenis then returned the favour by retelling the story of Kelly’s The End of Certainty, examining and advocating for the liberalisation of the Australian economy in The Australia Moment.
In Australia’s Second Chance Megalogenis has again set out for new territory, arguing that Australia’s prosperity and success depends not just on being an open country economically but an open country for migrants. The book shows that Australia was and always has been a nation defined by migration. This, alongside the question of population is a central element of the nation’s success.
In telling this story, Megalogenis usefully brings to popular light the role and status of the Irish and Chinese during the gold rush era, the link between the 1890s depression and the White Australia policy, and the efforts from the 1940s onwards to try and open up the country again to migration. The writing fairly clips along, and he helpfully doesn’t just focus on tired moments like Eureka and Gallipoli but tells of a steady clear narrative showing the vital importance of migration for national prosperity.
In writing a neat history however, Megalogenis’ work can sometimes imply a deterministic history. Much like his excellent, The Australia Moment, the outcome of any particular moment seems obvious and even necessary. The heat of conflict, the division, the possible alternatives are tamped down so as to clean up the narrative and progress the story. The end result seems somewhat bloodless. I found this more concerning in his earlier book ‘The Australia Moment’, because it seemed to imply there had once been an era where reform was easy and popular. But there’s a trace of it here too in ‘Australia’s Second Chance’.
The book is split into three sections. “The Rise” is Australia’s relative openness as a colony. “The Fall” charts the nation turning inwards against the Chinese on the gold fields, through the depression the 1890s, the establishment of White Australia and the muted 1920s. Finally “The Return” covers the post-war boom and through till today. All three sections are handled well, with the extended coverage of the early pre-WW2 years an important, and too often overlooked element of the nation’s story.
While this organisation makes the books purpose clear, you wouldn’t exactly know it from the title or cover design. Instead we get a book pitched as ‘What our history tells us about our future’. Likewise the introduction sets out as if it is just a simple retelling, only cryptically noting in one line ‘the thread that connects the past to the present and future is the ongoing conversation between those who came to these shores, and those who received them’. It may well be that this is simply the act of the publishers, who might (perhaps rightly) believe that such an approach would help entice a wider crowd, and lower readers’ guards given the controversial and tired nature of the issue.
But I suspect it was, at least partly deliberate. The bargain journalists tend to enter into when they write books is that they will focus on telling what has happened, but will hold off from looking ahead to say what should happen. By keeping to history re-examined, not a future imagined, they maintain their status as objective observers. Yet, Megalogenis is not afraid of making strong judgements on what was the right policy in the past. And in this case, he clearly passionately, and personally believes that Australia needs to much more fundamentally acknowledge and engage with migration.
While I was already a convert to this argument, I think the message in ‘Australia’s Second Chance’ is important and true and needs to be widely read and debated. It could also be made in stronger generalised terms. There is a vast literature on immigration and economic performance that could have been drawn upon to show that it’s not just because of our history that we should welcome immigration. It’s a general truth that immigration has many net positives for economic development. This literature is relatively easy to access and explain for a public audience, and gives us important guidelines for trying to work out how to achieve the best results in the future.
As such, given Megageorge’s reputation and track record, it would have been nice to see him wade into the ‘big Australia’ debate and argue clearly what Australia should do in the future. To stake out a position and help drive the national conversation about our relationship with migration and population. That’s a higher degree of difficulty, especially given the desire to remain an independent journalist. But get it right and it really would knock Kelly off his perch.