The Australian (economic) Moment

9780670075218Those interested in how the economy has reflected and shaped the Australian psyche should check out George Megalogenis’s latest, The Australian Moment: How We Were Made for these Times.

Megalogenis is one of my favoured political journalists, sober and articulate, with an eye to historical context, and always a pet theory to test.

The ‘Australian moment’ he describes is our Great Escape with the GFC  – the resultant climax of our economic development from Whitlam’s tariff cuts, the immigration of Fraser, major reforms of Hawke & Keating, Howard’s consolidation, Costello’s creation of APRA, then the super-charged immigration since 2001.

Faced with this challenge, he notes “We had tested and perfected our pragmatic version of deregulation a generation before the rest of the world awoke to the dangers of placing too much faith in the zeroes that globalisation can temporarily add to national income. For the first time in our history, we didn’t want to be anyone or anywhere else”

It’s a fascinating economic biography of Australia, championing our learned fiscal approach over a more expansive view than his previous, more concentrated look at the Keating/Howard era, The Longest Decade.

He notes various faults along the way, including the wasteful handouts of the Howard era, and the learning from the 70’s stagflation (when, unusually, both inflation and unemployment rose together).

Quite interesting is his observation on the subtitles of the role of Gen W (women & wogs) in the increasingly deregulated economy: “The 1990’s recession had been feminist without meaning to be“, and their ongoing contribution to political and social change: “Better educated and more globally aware than any grouping before it in Australian history, Gen W is the flipside of the tetchy, entitled baby-boomer males of the stagflation decade”.

Looking through the economic lens is an interesting and revealing way to understand a society. One might ask, for instance, do people respond to issues such as multiculturalism differently in prosperity, to during recession?

Megalogenis also makes some insightful observations on our broader society:

“To look at Australia in the 70’s is to see the reverse of twenty-first century attitudes on economic and social policy. We were a closed economy with an open heart back then…. (Today) no main-line politician in Australia would risk supporting the arrival of 5000 refugees, let along 50,000. Certainly not from opposition, as Fraser had done (with the Vietnamese)”

“We still have a self-sabotaching streak. Apathy and parochialism ensure that the national focus never strays beyond the bitumen tomb of suburbia”. 

“As with most Victorians, Fraser over-identified with football…”

“The scab of race, once starched, can reinfect the body politic under the stress of recession”

“In a group setting we (Australians) are wilfully inarticulate. The chant “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, Oi, Oi!’ is a form of national Tourette’s  This tone-deaf cry acts as a human shield to protect us, and the rest of the world, from taking Australia too seriously. Only a people that genuinely fear self-reflection would carry on like this”

“Perhaps this is why we continue to celebrate the military defeat of Gallipoli, as an extension of our aggressive adolescence, a young nation still not ready to find an independent voice. The ANZAC tradition serves the dual purpose of making us feel like victims while giving vent, in some sections of the community, to a boorish, the-world-can-get-stuffed patriotism”

“(But) it is the lack of a settled Australian culture which makes this country so much easier to migrate to than the USA or UK….The new arrival is told to adopt Australian values. ‘Okay’ the new arrival says, ‘I’m here for a better life – what is it exactly I have to do?’ .  ‘Er, Dunno..'”

“Why do Australians reacte better when they think they will lose something than when they receive a windfall?”

“The sense of national wellbeing is tied up in bricks’n’mortar…. Australians have always seen their houses as buffers against the external world. property serves as both fortress and open space for an anxious but friendly people”

“The rough rule of thumb for the Australian character is that we are greedy in good times and inspired in bad. As The Economist once put it ‘Australia is one of the best managers of adversity the world has seen – and the worse manager of prosperity'”.

“The Australian (economic) model can pick global trends better than the American or British models, because it doesn’t carry the baggage of past glories”

“Rudd shone through the GFC because he took advice. It was out of character… no leader on either side paid as much attention to what the Reserve Bank and Treasury had to say as Rudd did on those first few weeks of the GFC”

“The present day only feels uncertain because both sides of politics have been coasting intellectually for at least ten years”

Highly recommended.