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Why openness is the key to our greater prosperity

2 January 2016 78 views No Comment

POLITICS
Review of ‘Australia’s Second Chance: What Our History Tells Us about Our Future.’
GEORGE MEGALOGENIS
HAMISH HAMILTON, $34.99

Australian politics can be confusing. We’d probably all agree on that. But it has been this way for a long time. In fact in 1913 even the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin found it so. After federal Labor’s narrow defeat by the Liberal Party’s Joseph Cook, Lenin, watching from afar, was baffled.

“What sort of peculiar capitalist country is this, in which the workers’ representatives predominate in the Upper House and, till recently, did so in the Lower House as well, and yet the capitalist system is in no danger?” Lenin asked. “The Australian Labor Party does not even call itself a socialist party … Actually [Labor] is a liberal-bourgeois party, while the so-called Liberals in Australia are really Conservatives.”

From the point of view of a detached observer, there is much to be said for Lenin’s proposition that, except on rare occasions, both of our major political groupings have much more in common with each other than they imagine. They agree on matters of defence and immigration, where there remains considerable unanimity about policy deemed to be in the national interest.

Their bipartisanship has historical precedents. After Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, in the middle of an Australian election campaign, our major political parties immediately engaged in a duel of unswerving loyalty to the British Empire. Ironically, this worked best in Labor’s favour.

Andrew Fisher pledged that Australia would defend Britain “to our last man and our last shilling”. This claim so resonated with voters that the ALP easily won the election with a primary vote of 50.9 per cent , still Labor’s highest ever. As the intellectually adroit George Megalogenis aptly puts it: “Here was an egalitarian nation, ready to fight for the empire under the banner of Labor.”

In ‘Australia’s Second Chance’, Megalogenis analyses key demographic, economic, and political trends apparent in historical and current-day Australia. As the title suggests, the gist of its narrative is how to extricate ourselves from deep economic downturns and especially how to be, and remain, prosperous again.

Throughout the book Megalogenis argues it has only been when we encouraged large-scale immigration and a policy of openness that we have been an economically successful nation. Hence he claims that, for much of the 19th century, “Australia was the world’s richest country, a pioneer for democracy and a magnet for migrants”.

In order to be prosperous and remain so, Megalogenis argues that we need to emulate our most successful examples of political bipartisanship.

Perhaps the clearest indication of the fundamental agreement of the national parties is when Bob Hawke returned federal Labor to office in 1983, after a mere seven years in opposition. But, Megalogenis writes, “this was like no previous Labor government … as it sought to promote the interests of workers by favouring business”.

Indeed, over 13 crucial years, from April 1983 to March 1996, the federal Labor governments of Hawke and Paul Keating, supported by the economic and fiscal policies (if not always the electoral rhetoric) of the federal opposition, succeeded in legislating key policies that had widespread support.

As Megalogenis explains, it was the Labor governments of Hawke and Keating that “successfully floated the dollar, opened the financial sector, pulled down the tariff wall, and allowed workers and employers to negotiate wages at the enterprise level, without officials looking over their shoulder”.

Since the Hawke-Keating years, the major political groupings have been in fundamental agreement about other key issues of economics, finance, defence, and of matters concerning population.

The only potential dissenters in Australia in 2016 are those from the right wing of the Liberal and National parties, who may well successfully argue the need for a split away from both major groupings to form a genuinely conservative political party.

The reality is that the parties supposedly representing the forces of capital and those of labour both strongly support a unified approach to Australia’s defence capabilities and fiscal and monetary policy.

In particular, large-scale immigration is presented by both of our major groupings as the key to Australia’s economic and political future. To someone like me, who strongly argues that one of Australia’s and the world’s major problems is overpopulation, this is a contentious claim.

Yet to my mind the only observable major weakness in this weighty book is that, fact-studded and fascinating as it is ‘Australia’s Second Chance’ contains no maps or other useful graphics that would have made the task of understanding Megalogenis’ major thesis considerably easier.

Nevertheless the ever-resourceful Megalogenis has clearly put on record, for public debate, his crucial notion that Australia’s prosperity is contingent upon the continued arrival of immigrants from overseas.

Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of Politics and History at Griffith University.

The Sydney Morning Herald, January 2-3, 2016, Spectrum, p 27. Also in The Age.

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