The Australian Moment: George Megalogenis and Christos Tsiolkas in conversation

“I want to see the potential that George believes in,” exclaims Christos with characteristic passion. George pauses. “I suppress some of my pessimism – because nobody else is writing this way.”

Why isn’t ambitious, innovative, multicultural Australia reflected in its political leadership? Why hasn’t our great GFC escape translated into confident nationhood? Why instead does federal politics and its media coverage seem intent on a race to the bottom?

On a warm April evening, Christos Tsiolkas and George Megalogenis are in conversation as part of George’s book tour for The Australian Moment. An intimate Melbourne gathering meets two thinkers well placed to tackle the critical questions that they’re largely alone in posing.

The writer and the journalist have a great deal in common. Both champion powerfully persuasive views of an Australia that’s confident in its diversity. Both avoid one-dimensional characterisations of people and events. There’s no cultural snapshots, no poll reporting, no reversion to cliché; theirs is a nation in flux. Their prolific long- and short-form works offer richly detailed perspectives on an Australia that tolerates ambiguities and works through conflicts with maturity. In doing so, both posit confident, realistic visions of an Australia whose mainstream is undeniably culturally diverse.

And while both are Greek-Australian, both identify with wog culture more readily than with their Greek heritage; both Christos and George understand identity as something constantly negotiated. “We both have wog names,” Christos says to George. “It’s a statistical fact that we’re transforming Australia.” And it’s George’s work that has established this statistical fact. The Australia analysed in George’s Faultlines and The Longest Decade, and fictionalised in Christos’s Loaded and The Slap, is comfortable with its dynamic cultural identity – and draws strength from it.

In discussing the complex characters of The Slap, Christos appeals to a distinction of George’s between the “cosmopolitan” and another category of Australian who unreflectively accepts Australian luck as a constant, a given. George picks up a new copy of his own book to look it up. Was it “tribal”? No: “triumphalist.” This resonates with the gathering. An audience member wonders how long we can continue to ride on luck and not skill and maturity as a nation? “We are too lucky,” says Christos, “and the world sees this.” “The only thing that will keep us down in the future,” responds George, “is a failure to seize this moment.” Yet just when we need positive leadership the most, what we have instead are politicians swinging between the tribal and the triumphalist, clinging to pre-climate change views of the world, trumpeting our mining boom success while talking down positive reforms.

A lack of visionary leadership is bemoaned during question time, and Christos turns the question to George. George describes the disappointing leadership paradigm at play in a nation where neither major party can command more than 40% of the primary vote. The challenge now facing our politicians is to lead with the confidence that we do indeed understand complexities, that we welcome sophisticated policy, and that we yearn for a positive vision. “Instead,” George continues, “we have two political leaders in fear of the Australian public.” While the Prime Minister struggles to advance a consistent set of values among fickle stakeholders, the Opposition Leader clings to a security blanket of bland negativity. Although minority governments are not unknown across Australian history, on this occasion neither major party is able to convey any significant leadership. Instead, George notes, “both parties recognise that all the energy in Parliament is coming from the Greens right now.” Not even in their own eyes do they have the mandate to articulate a positive, optimistic vision for our country’s future. George is clear on the need to seize this moment: “Forget ‘Stop the boats,’ I want to hear ‘Start the trains.’ Lets get this country moving.”

For Christos, George writes with “a ferocious lucidity… he is a writer who keeps me sane.” For George, Christos is “brilliant.” While George sees this as a critical time for change, Christos is not so sure. The strength and optimism in George’s writing is bolstered by a watertight statistical and economic logic, rendering all that complexity with a grounding optimism. In contrast, while reviews of Christos’s work often describe his characters asflawed, Christos’s talent is in detailing those characters among the fullness of the conflicts and contradictions that make them so very real. This too is a confidence, an optimism, a respect for the reader. Christos writes the great Australian novel without feeling the compulsion to offer Australia a recipe for greatness.

After a solid four-decade account of our resilience against international shocks,The Australian Moment posits some new challenges, leaving open the question of how to build on the opportunities we have. The Slap too throws lives open and casts them into air, but leaves us with a tentative optimism amid plenty of scope for its interpretation. As a nation we are poised at the cusp of a complex array of economic, political and cultural choices. “Greatness is calling Australia,” George goes on to write in The Australian the following week, “but you wouldn’t know it from the behaviour of some MPs.”

It must be up to us then.