Why does Australia keep repeating the mistakes of its past? Why does each new generation of migrants face exactly the same attacks as the ones before? And when all the data shows what a success story migration is, why can’t we remain a confident nation that’s open to the world – as well as to one another.
George Megalogenis tackles all these questions in his latest work, and then he goes one further: Australia’s Second Chance challenges us to understand these anxieties as the biggest stumbling blocks to our prosperity. After all, we’ve blown it before, in exactly the same way – and we suffered the consequences for decades. And now that we’re once again on the brink of making something of this Australian moment, we’re at risk of blowing it all over again.
In a wholly new mode of research and explication for George, Australia’s Second Chance takes us back to the point of first contact between local people and British settlers, and then repeats that focus to cover each point of first contact between settled communities and new arrivals. With a consistency that surprises, disappoints and deeply shames our sense of nationhood, George’s presentation of political language and economic data shows how repeatedly we’ve demonised new arrivals, only to go on to accept them as vital to the Australian story, damaging our culture as well as our economy along the way.
“We have the power to deal with people of any and every race within our borders…”
“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come…”
“The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to…”
“These men are aliens in language, customs and religion… They are regarded by the mass of the colonial population as inferiors; and they tacitly admit their inferiority… They would continue to constitute a lower stratum of society, into which the most degraded of the superior race would sink.”
“We are not compelled to accept the unwanted of the world at the dictate of the United Nations or anyone else…”
“…we shall insist on maintaining our sovereign rights to determine what people shall make up our population.”
“We have the proud gratification of being able to announce to our readers that the moral plague which threatened us is averted.”
The consistency is alarming. Repeated “we decide” rhetoric at several turning points throughout our history. Repeated racial slurs, in language repeated almost verbatim, regardless of the cultural context. Repeated boat turnbacks, such as the spectacular centenary dummy spit covered in Making Australia Great. You fast get the impression that the capacity to say No is the only agency that Australia can readily mobilise.
The same language. The same impacts. The same pattern of wedge politics and unreflective populism against an increasingly diverse population who is all too easily hijacked into that collective anxiety. This is our political heritage. And yet, as George clearly shows, whenever we’ve tried to control the economy and wages by restricting immigration, the economy has suffered and wages have fallen. It happened in the 1890s – the first great Australian moment when we were the richest country in the world on every measure and indeed on quite some margin. It happened after World War I – right when the post-war period should’ve buoyed us. Our defiance, expressed as that powerfully negative gesture, is exposed time and time again as a cowardice.
An important absent presence in the book is the voter opinion poll. While the nature of polling has changed over time, its use and misuse has by now become endemic. Famously, George has declared war on poll reporting many times, refusing to engage in the amplification of its very limited value as political messaging. The argument that this border-control defiance is justified because most Australians want it that way is both circular and spurious. Without needing to make reference to it, George’s pattern of rhetoric becoming undone by cultural and economic reality dismisses both that argument and the value of polling.
There is a clarity to George’s writing that elevates the economic into a cultural discourse regardless of his subject matter. In Australia’s Second Chance, this literary style is quite pronounced, and yet as a writer highly skilled in short-form daily news as well as long-form journalism, George’s style recedes past his analyses. In doing so, culture is brought to the fore, expressed in so readable a style that to speak of literary technique seems almost superfluous. Throughout the book, Australia’s Indigenous population is afforded the dignity of being referred to as “locals,” consistently reminding us that every other of Australia’s ethnic group is a recent arrival. Importantly, the perspective of the locals remains threaded throughout the entire book with care. George’s sharp news writing connects each chapter with a tight paragraph of condensed argument, which is exceptionally useful for a text spanning so lengthy a period. Historical accounts are presented as neither dated nor quaint, but as incongruously newsworthy by today’s standards. And when it comes to the cruel portrayal of racial anxiety, today’s standards aren’t great.
Equally vital to Australia’s Second Chance is the role of women, and as is true of all of George’s work, this too is a feminist text. The conditions of production, the realities of embodiment, the struggle for equality are all recounted – and oriented specifically to the problems of emergent nationhood.
George is also clear that he does not want to make this a psychologistic account, and by eschewing that approach, he manages to make the account of motivations and systematic misunderstandings all the more stark and all the more compelling. Viewed through the lens of economic development, cultural insecurity makes even less sense, given diversity is the basis of a strong and sustainable economy. Even while expounding clear and obvious racism, George does not leap towards obvious parallels with the contemporary crisis of unjustifiable cruelty towards asylum seekers. The reader is left to draw those connections – connections made all the more powerful by the book’s calm optimism that reflects George’s own.
This rare talent is George’s gift to the nation. To remain not only optimistic but passionately positive about Australia’s future is a rare affliction in these times of deeply disappointing political leadership. For too many years we have seen politicians pursue their own personal power at the cost of human lives – as well as the inestimable human cost of compounded cultural damage to a great and tolerant nation. George is explicit in setting the expectation to politicians that they meet this challenge to overcome that pettiness and seize this moment. Quoting Menzies at his Melbourne talk on the book’s launch tour this week, George remarked: “It would be interesting if Labor read Menzies’ 1949 speeches – to see what courage looks like from opposition.”
A great many Australian stories have been told. George’s is considered, engaging, feminist. His entire oeuvre champions a great Australia and exhorts the children of migrants to lead the way. Let’s go.
Australia’s Second Chance (2015) by George Megalogenis is published by Penguin.