While the rest of the world reels from recession and revolts against austerity measures, Australians have lot to smile about. And, according to the prominent economic journalist and Melbourne native George Megalogenis, they ought to be congratulating themselves more for it. By NICK BRYANT.
For George Megalogenis, this is The Australian Moment. The title of his new bestselling book sounds ominously like the boast of a cocky antipodean, barracking from the stands of, say, The Oval just as Australia is on the verge of victory in the Ashes. Indeed, one of the aims of his book is not so much to make Australians feel good about themselves as to think differently about their country. Outside of the sporting realm, they are surprisingly poor at taking credit for their own achievements, preferring to look upon themselves as inhabitants of a 'Lucky Country' teeming with resources – ‘a quarry with a view’. Megalogenis, a columnist with The Australian, has set out to persuade his compatriots that they have made their own luck.
It’s a persuasive argument. At the start of the 1980s, Australia risked becoming the ‘poor white trash of Asia’, in the cruel estimation of the former Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Its currency was ridiculed as the ‘Pacific Peso’. Now the talk worldwide is of a ‘wonder down under’: a country that has successfully avoided the past three global recessions, with a currency now enjoying parity with the greenback. Abraham Lincoln described America as ‘the last best hope on Earth’. With the US in decline, Megalogenis asks whether that is now true of Australia. If nothing else, he believes it has become ‘more versatile today than any other first-world nation'.
‘We’re not meant to be great,’ he tells me, ‘and the rest of the world has recognised our success before we have recognised it ourselves. We need to teach ourselves as a country to look at the rest of the world to realise how good things are here.’ The start of the good times can be traced back to the 1980s, when the then Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, assisted by his hyper-ambitious young Treasurer, Paul Keating, began the deregulation process that opened up the Australian economy to the outside world. What turned out to be a 30-year reform era continued under the conservative government of John Howard, and gave Australia a formidably strong economic model by the time that the Asian financial crisis struck in 1997. ‘We found a way to survive,’ says Megalogenis, and it pre-dates the rise of China, a huge market for its resources and now the country’s largest trading partner. ‘We’re not panicked any more. We don’t seem to be intimidated any more. And our big idea wasn’t something that we pinched. We thought it through ourselves.’ 'Are his compatriots listening?' I ask. ‘The penny is beginning to drop,’ he says, especially for older Aussies who lived through the uncertainties of the 1970s.
Time was when Australia was explained by writers with English-sounding names: Manning Clark, its most celebrated historian, and Donald Horne, the journalist who at the start of the 1960s wrote The Lucky Country, a polemic that lambasted the country’s stultifying conservatism and complacency. Megalogenis, who was born in 1964, the year that The Lucky Country was published, personifies many of the changes that have since overtaken his homeland. His Greek parents came to Australia after the war, and met at the Ithaca Club in Melbourne. His father worked as a signalman on the railways, and his signal box became an early playground. ‘My parents did us right,’ says Megalogenis, who is now in his late-forties. ‘They put a roof over our heads, food on the table and put my sister and I through school and university.’ Because of his Greek heritage, he was teased at school, and says he didn’t know how to cope with the baiting and ridicule. ‘I feel sorry for that little boy,’ he says, ‘but don’t recognise him now.’
After getting his start in journalism as a trainee with the now defunct Melbourne Sun-News Pictorial, he worked for more than a decade in the Canberra press gallery, before returning to his native Melbourne, where he now writes columns for The Australian and also a popular blog, Meganomics. The once-bullied schoolboy has become one of the country’s most influential political and economic commentators, and is now a regular fixture on the ABC Sunday political talk show, Insiders, which neatly sums up his journey. From the outer to the inner, classic Australian dream.
Just as the most talked about Australian novel of recent years has been The Slap by the Greek-Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas, Megalogenis has produced the most talked about history. A coincidence? ‘Perhaps people are keen to hear from immigrants who fit in,’ he says. ‘I’m an outsider who joined the mainstream and talks up the mainstream. That is receptive to the Australia ear.’
So should be his thesis. Envious finance ministers in Europe and North America have long marvelled at Australia’s seemingly recession-proof economy, just as many would-be immigrants view the country as one of the world’s great lifestyle superpowers. The challenge for Megalogenis is to convince his compatriots that they, like him, are living in the Australian moment.
Sydney correspondent for the BBC.