Thursday, 15 October 2015

Book review: Australia's Second Chance, George Megalogenis (2015)

The author was on the air with the ABC earlier this year - about 6 months ago in fact - doing a show he wrote called Making Australia Great: Inside Our Longest Boom and this book draws on the same research he did for that series of programs.

It must strike anyone who reads this book - at least those, like me, who read almost half of it - that the roots of Australian democracy resided firmly and in complete neighbourly calm within the xenophobic quarters of the hearts of the colonists. In the late 1880s as the colonies were about to end a stunning run of two generations of unprecedented and world-beating economic growth the premiers of most of the colonies decided to start turning away Chinese migrants. A few years later when the global economy turned bad again the country would be facing its first depression, and it was immigration that might have helped them fight it. But at this moment colonial residents decided to shut the door in the faces of newcomers from the north.

It is at such moments as these that the otherwise-dry Megalogenis really shines. Here's what he writes at the end of Chapter 9, 'Centennial Tantrum: Closing the Doors':
[New South Wales governor Henry] Parkes said it himself: he did not care for the rule of law if it did not suit his view of the national interest. He saw a white Australia as a declaration of independence from Britain: the first step to nationhood. This was a meaner country than the one he had landed in half a century earlier. The old Australia wanted to be seen as a role model. This new Australia was bloated with self-importance.
Self-importance because "[Australia's] political economy, like its real economy, had made the dangerous assumption that the world owed it a living.

"This Australia no longer wished to set an example: it was issuing demands." Where earlier in the century Australia had led the world in wages growth and in the levels of democratic freedom it offered its residents, now it feared foreign competition and decided to merely shut the doors to new arrivals from Asia when what it should have done was to open them.

Britain's treaties with China mandated free access to its colonies by Chinese subjects of the Celestial Throne, but the colonists - not just powerful dignitaries like Henry Parkes, but just as equally run-of-the-mill Johnnys-in-the-street - refused to allow Chinese immigrants to step off the boats they arrived on from China. So began our shift to self-determination, in a sad twist of fate. It turns out that we had bigoted parents.

Until after WWII we grew to love foreigners again, so that today we are again one of the world's most prosperous nations. That's the thesis of Megalogenis' book in a nutshell. When we're open we prosper. When we shut the doors, we suffer economically. It's a good lesson to learn and it's not surprising that it took a journalist to teach it to us. It is also a timely lesson to remember in this age of anti-immigration political parties; the children of Pauline Hansen carry many acronyms.

But Megalogenis for all his ability to present adequate facts to support his analysis - and the analytical parts of the book, such as the chapter-closing quote I place above, shine the brightest of all - has written a rather prosaic work that for me failed the critical appetite test: if I eagerly went to the book at odd moments that are otherwise unoccupied during the day. It's also a book that largely ignores the consequences of settlement for the indigenous population of Australia.

There must be a way to write that book: the book that adequately deals with white settlement while at the same time detailing in a useful way the deleterious consequences for Aborigines of that settlement. So far I have not come across that book, but I would love to read it one day. Megalogenis' inspired book makes a fine start in that direction but it seems that our conception of the Aborigines has not been adequately integrated with our conception of who we are ourselves. As a nation we still have some distance to go down the track if we want to really understanding who we are, it seems.

Megalogenis does draw the past closer to the present through his analysis of the way settlement was performed, and especially the way democratic institutions were erected, by focusing on the matter of immigration. Immigration is a key part of our history and goes some way toward defining the character of every person living on the continent, including Aboriginal people. But we need something else that is situated in the present to draw upon in order to properly write Australia's history in a way that can include Aborigines in it in a meaningful and compelling way.

That thing might be a set of values surrounding a contemporary institution that gives prominence to the Aboriginal heritage of the continent. It might be something that defines a very special relationship between the Aborigines and the rest of the community living in Australia. Whatever it is, it will have to be something that goes to the very essence of who we believe we are - both Aboriginal people and the rest - and that does something to define our very identity. Once we have that thing in place we will be better situated to write the definitive history of Australia in a way that can suit everyone.

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