‘Australia’s Second Chance’ by George Megalogenis


‘Australia’s Second Chance: What our history tells us about our future’

2016, 292

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.

The book is written in three parts. Part I ‘The Rise’ covers from the First Fleet to post-Eureka. He starts with Governor Phillip, ‘the accidental egalitarian’ who was forced through food shortages, a dearth of free settlers, and British disinterest into making land available for convicts to prevent them returning to England. The government emigration schemes of the early 1840s, especially into Port Phillip, were a world-first in that they responded to  the local economy’s call for particular skills and made the link between migration and prosperity. When the gold rush came, “no people were better prepared for transformation by gold than the Victorians of the mid 19th century” (p. 67).  The goldfields were in close proximity to Melbourne and Geelong, and La Trobe increased the wages of public servants (to stop them leaving for the diggings) and embarked on a program of public works to ensure that a parallel economy developed for those who stayed behind in Melbourne.  These gold-rush migrants had had experience of the 1848 uprisings in Europe, and there was a consensus that political and social reforms should be ceded gradually.  Megalogenis makes the point that Australia’s late development as a capitalist economy  was an advantage, occurring after slavery had been abolished and in the wake of increasing shipping and communication developments, contributing to a national self-image amongst Australians as being people of the world.

However, as Part II ‘The Fall’ points out, this self-confidence was on shaky ground, and by the turn of the century, fearful that the good luck would run out, Australian policy became more insular and protective, revealing ‘the chauvinism of the affluent’ . There had been harbingers of this tendency in the earlier century, first with the rejection of  Earl Gray’s Famine Orphan Girls (which he describes as springing more from anxiety about sex, rather than anxiety about race). In the wake of the Eureka uprising, Australia became the first in the world to use democracy as a deliberate tool of exclusion, first with the Chinese gold-seekers, then with Pacific Islanders.  By the late 1880s, flushed with Centennial celebrations and the influx of overseas finance that fuelled Melbourne’s housing boom, the decision was made to wind back migration in order to reduce the Irish influence and in response to union pressure about Chinese undercutting wages. When the property bubble burst,the “entire swaggering edifice of the world’s richest settlement” collapsed too:

Australians reverted to to something closer to their sullen former convict selves, separated from the world, and overly reliant on an inattentive mother country. Australia could only define itself to the world by what it wanted to exclude.  The White Australia policy, drafted at the top of the boom, became the wrong answer to almost every problem the colonies confronted once growth ended, and then the wrong message to sent the world when they finally formed a federation in 1901. (p. 149)

The White Australia policy became Australia’s first defining feature, and Australia’s political class was “born thinking small” (p. 159). Although WWI generally (and perversely) boosted the economies of other countries, it did not do so in Australia. The 1920s were a flat, muted decade, especially compared to the rest of the world.  It was only after WWII that Australia reclaimed “its true, open migrant self” but even here we see a trajectory of rejection that started with the Irish Orphan Girls and followed with the Chinese diggers, the Irish during WWI, Italians in the 1920s and then post-war Jewish refugees.

In Part III ‘The Return’ he traces this return to migration as a source of growth during the second half of the twentieth century.  Although the election of Menzies marked a shift to the right, he claims that there was more continuity between Chifley and Menzies than is often assumed.  Menzies, for example, accepted Labor’s model for national post-war development and overturned Calwell’s War-time Refugees Removal Act.  In fact, there’s little evidence of Whitlam’s multicultural-friendly ALP here, and as Megalogenis points out, many present-day Liberals are more like Calwell’s ALP. Although Whitlam hammered the last nails into the coffin of White Australia, it was Menzies and Holt who shouldered the coffin to that point.  Not that it was a popular policy either, which makes it all the braver, with a 1951 survey revealing approval of Greek migration only at 43%, Yugoslavian at 34% and Italians at only 27%. Post-war migration followed the pattern that we see with Middle Easter migration today with the men arriving first, then after a decade women coming in to close the gender imbalance.  The practice of both parents working arose first amongst migrant families, and it was the second generation that really reaped the benefits of their parents’ sacrifice.

Taking a broad sweep across twentieth-century history, Megalogenis identifies two periods that combined policy innovation, political stability and a shared sense of purpose across the parties of both labour and capital.  The first was the Curtin-Chifley-Menzies era, spanning 1941-1966, and the second was the Hawke-Keating-Howard arc between 1983 and 2007.  They were similar in length, and each was preceded by global humilitation. Both commenced with the ‘Halley’s Comet of Federal politics’- a Labor government, and both ended with the complacency of a conservative government that won too many elections. Both led to a period of prime ministerial volatility similar to that of early Federation politics.

I also suspect that Megalogenis’ upbeat cheerleading for migration would have been dampened somewhat by Pauline Hanson’s success in the recent double dissolution election and the recent opinion poll that showed that her ideas on migration are held by half the electorate. Megalogenis would  almost certainly point out that post-war migration wasn’t electorally popular at time either, and that true leadership lay in taking the country in an ultimately positive direction that its citizens might have, with lesser leadership, baulked at. But I think that even he, with his generally positive mindset would be sobered by recent developments.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10

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