‘Australia’s Second Chance: What our history tells us about our future’
When I did HSC Australian History back in 1973, one of the books we had to purchase was A.G.L. Shaw’s The Economic Development of Australia. With its mud-coloured front cover, it was not an enticing book and it remained resolutely unopened the whole year. Despite my admiration for A.G.L. Shaw’s work on Port Phillip, I’ve never been tempted to dig it out again.
Generally, economic history does not have a lot of prominence within Australian historiography, especially in recent years. This struck me particularly when I was looking at Upper Canadian history, where economic explanations of development seem to abound. I wondered if, perhaps the difference lay in the fact that Upper Canada was settled overtly as a capitalist, entrepreneurial venture, compared with Australia’s more ambivalent beginnings as a penal colony in NSW, Tasmania and Moreton Bay, or as a Wakefieldian experiment in South Australia combining economic and social/moral aims.
However, in Australia’s Second Chance George Megalogenis has written a history of Australia from an economic perspective that starts with the First Fleet and goes right through to 2015. Megalogenis writes more as a journalist more than historian and political commentator and in this survey-history he relies mainly on secondary sources.
The thesis of the book is that with the Gold Rush, Australia had a windfall that opened us up to the rest of the world and made us, during the 1870s, the most prosperous country in the world. However, by the end of the 1880s we were too rich for our own good, and insecure that we could lose it all and thus grasped at the White Australia policy as a way of keeping people and goods out in order to preserve our standard of living. This insular, frightened stance locked Australia into low growth and a sluggish economy until post-war migration, in its various guises, reinjected diversity back into Australian society and again stoked the furnaces of economic growth. In the closing chapters of the book, written while Abbott was Prime Minister, he warns that income inequality and fear of competition could lead us to squander our ‘second chance’- the minerals boom and Hawke/Keating open economy- and condemn us again to mediocrity. Continue reading