With its rare line-up of former prime ministers and treasury leaders, Making Australia Great presents as an articulate explainer of the politics behind our economic prosperity. In fact, the three-part documentary offers a manifesto for a multicultural Australia that’s confident enough to champion its successful cultural diversity to the world – a manifesto we can’t waste any time in adopting.
“If there is a risk of systems failure in Australia, it is the inability to accept the challenge of success.”
In The Longest Decade and The Australian Moment, George Megalogenis chronicles the extraordinary position Australia finds itself in as “the last rich nation standing” following an extended period without recession, the GFC notwithstanding. It’s a feat that’s outstanding in global terms, and yet in Australia, we’re far from seeing ourselves as having achieved something great; on the contrary, our politics is gripped by a facile state-of-exception narrative that seeks to justify inaction on health, education, climate change, asylum seekers, public transport, infrastructure (and so on) with a confected “budget emergency.” This irks and genuinely confuses George, who opens the series and each of its three episodes with: “I want to go beyond the fog of politics to see Australia as it really is, and ask the most important question of all: Can we make something of this moment?” Note the key part of his provocation: to see Australia as it really is. This is not a political history, nor an economic history, but a cultural history. This is the story of the Australia whose decision-makers lack the courage to work through their fog to stop squandering what’s great and start leading a great nation.
Characteristically, George tells this story clearly with close analysis, compelling data and good humour. We’re given a strong sense of the style of each decade, across “bad hair” days and good, immersing us in the contexts of what made the big decisions possible. A range of views is put so that we’ve understood the issues from multiple perspectives. Then, as the third episode draws to a close, George does something remarkable: he uncovers a precedent, a period in Australia’s history when we’d achieved and then squandered the position of richest country in the world, just when we were on the brink of greatness. And what’s even more astounding is that the reason why we squandered that moment also finds its parallel in our failures of leadership of today.
So what happened? By the 1880s, the investment of our mining boom in cultural and economic infrastructure has sustained our world-leading wealth for four decades. Our welcoming of Chinese and other migrants had come to characterise the Australian spirit as open, innovative and entrepreneurial. “No other country’s people had ever been this affluent before or since,” says George. And then, we choked.
“1888, the Centenary of Federation, was also the year in which we threw a tantrum – which, I believe, changed our luck.”
On 27 April 1888, the Afghan sailed into Melbourne with 268 Chinese on board with 67 intending to disembark, many of whom were not new immigrants but people who were coming back home. Expecting fewer Chinese than this, the Victorians turned the boat away, rejecting their documents and declaring them to be illegal immigrants – and when the Afghan then docked in Sydney on 6 May, that government also declared them illegals, not even allowing those with valid paperwork to land. It’s grimly familiar, and the similarities don’t end there. Both governments defied urgent telegrams from the Colonial Office in London demanding that the Chinese be allowed entry, just as our government defies and even publicly attacks the United Nations today. NSW overrode its own Supreme Court ruling which demanded that the Chinese stay, instead legislating the restriction of all future Chinese immigration. And not only did that legislation foreshadow the White Australia Policy, it also foreshadowed the end of our confident wealth as we petulantly closed ourselves off from the terrifying prospect of greatness:
“The Afghan crisis wasn’t just about the Chinese. It was also a message to London – and to the rest of the world – that from now on, we will decide who comes to our workers’ paradise. But this first, formal expression of a White Australia, made when we were the richest people on earth, heralded a fifty-year economic and social decline.”
This moment was not only poorly understood at the time, it remains poorly understood today. Writing in The Age last Saturday, Latrobe Emeritus Professor Judith Brett rails against this representation of Australia’s history in her opinion piece ‘Making Australia Great is wrong to blame economic woes on anti-Chinese policy’. She describes the documentary as taking a “fearfully awry [turn] from a well informed program about economics to a bizarre one about migration.” And she ends: “I can’t believe that someone with as much understanding of economic history as Megalogenis really thinks the depression of the 1890s was caused by the restriction of Chinese immigration” and even suggests that it may have been SBS as a potential producer for the series that skewed George to be “interested only in stories with a migration angle.”
Migration is not some minor, “bizarre” aspect of Australian history. It is our history. It is the Australian story, from settlement and the shame of our Indigenous relations, through the White Australia and economic protectionist years, the post-war mass migration boom and its nation-building infrastructure investments, the welcoming of the Vietnamese and the 1980s boom years, and then more recently, the unleashing of racism, sexism and our treatment of asylum seekers and the GFC wake.
To foreground this the way that George does is to take a turn away from the “fearfully awry” and begin to comprehend the relationship between moments of an Australian confidence that is open to the world, and moments of an Australian anxiety that is closed to the world. Australia’s modern history is the history of all the political struggles of our countries of origin, and the periodic denial of our governments to understand multiculturalism as always already mainstream. Correlation is not causation; this requires a sophisticated approach. George’s entire oeuvre from his 2003 Faultlines: Race, Work and the Politics of Changing Australia onwards is that sophisticated exploration of our contemporary economic, political and cultural history. Indeed George is one of the only thinkers with a commitment to addressing this modern history with rigour, as well as having the vision to project into a future of greatness – if we can only accept its challenge.
Overcoming the tantrum as leadership style
It’s not been an edifying succession of national leadership since the end of what George calls ‘The Longest Decade’ of the Keating-Howard years. Peter Costello spat the dummy at the very moment when the leadership of the Liberal Party was finally his, and the prime ministership within his grasp. Kevin Rudd continued to spit the dummy, undermining his colleagues’ solid legislative record. The old mass market media spat the dummy on a daily basis in its inability to accept a woman as prime minister. The current prime minister spits the dummy in the face of expert and international criticism of his approach. The tantrum is fast replacing the considered response that is respectful of the electorate as well as of our place in the world.
If our 1888 tantrum saw a fifty-year economic decline, today’s imprudence will surely unleash something far worse – now, at this Australian moment, when there is so much at stake in how we halt the progress of climate change through mature debate and sound investment, or meet the challenge of terrorism through sophisticated cross-cultural understandings, or support our ageing population through an economy robust enough to generate significant tax revenues.
So why can’t we make something of this moment? What makes success so difficult to own? What are our political leaders afraid of?
It’s too easy to look at the tall poppy syndrome and our larrikin under-dog image, too easy to look at populist fear-mongering and poll-driven decision-making. It’s true that the media climate is its own perfect storm of destabilisation right now, with the highly owner-concentrated mass media prioritising the stories of leadership conflict and political sensationalism that sell today’s papers and today’s advertising. Yet the nature of our current tantrum goes beyond this vicious cycle of populism for/by a shallow public culture. Leadership has been reframed as a grasp for low-hanging fruit, a small vision with success trumpeted as “stop the boats and axe the tax.”
A confident approach to Australian multiculturalism, immigration and our international humanitarian obligations would strengthen our society and cast the image of a mature Australia across the world. Instead, in demonising and mistreating asylum seekers whose numbers are incredibly low by global standards, or approaching our responsibilities to Indigenous Australians as mere options among a range of “lifestyle choices,” we come across to the world as a scared nation of petulant children unable to share their toys – unable to take our resources and opportunities seriously as other than playthings.
This confident approach to Australian multiculturalism is what George champions across his work, most notably in Faultlines where his analysis of a range of success measures shows that women and the Australian-born children of migrants are outperforming in areas such as tertiary education, earnings and home ownership. “Wogs and women” are Australia’s future – and as one of each, I can relate to the wog confidence that drives us to approach complexity with a productive optimism. The children of migrants are made acutely aware of the opportunities that cannot be squandered because of the struggles that secured them. We’re active and engaged citizens, not “relaxed and comfortable.” We respond to hardship with conviction, resilience and a sense of potential. This is something that I feel instinctively as a wog, as a woman perhaps, and as a feminist most certainly. Life is too short to live with anything other than a constructive confidence, a generosity of spirit, and an openness to the world.
I expect nothing less of our national leadership. We need to move beyond a corporate change management approach to leadership that works through the predetermined steps of defining a situation as dire, and then bringing forward its straw man solution. This is the toy Lego set, the low-hanging fruit of leadership – an approach that satisfies only those who lack the confidence, the foresight and the skill to work out how to reach higher. Change management as a leadership approach will always fall prey to a bias towards negative framing. This is classic leadership “systems failure”: clinging to problems rather than addressing the potential of which those problems are the manifestation.
Articulating a vision requires a more advanced set of leadership skills. A cultural or social enterprise leader who told you that their mission was a budget surplus is no leader at all; such work requires the ability to develop and sustain a vision. Which means more than assembling a hundred people to a national summit and then imposing pre-determined solutions. Actually being able to envision and articulate an image of what success looks like – encompassing the full diversity and potential of our contemporary Australian context – is the ability to accept the challenge of success. It’s a rare ability in a leader. Increasingly, it’s rarer yet that such people enter politics. Never in my lifetime have we been so far away from experiencing this kind of political leadership. And yet, in the arts, cultural and community sector, it thrives.
George Megalogenis’ Making Australia Great will change the Australian culture.
Making Australia Great: Inside our Longest Boom
Written and presented by George Megalogenis
Produced by ABC TV and freely accessible on iView until 30 April 2015
All quotes are from Episode 3: Australia’s Second Chance.
George’s next book, Australia’s Second Chance, is due for release in October 2015.