Review: George Megalogenis’s Trivial Pursuit

Thursday, 10 February 2011 

One thing that can make George Megalogenis a worthwhile read is that he does his own research. This makes him preferable to others who simply regurgitate whatever they’ve been fed, no matter how contradictory.

But Megalogenis has a problem of method. He confuses what is important with what is not. As a result he can often get things upside-down when he uses one thing to explain another.

For example, Megalogenis repeats the old saw that the supposed lack of principles by our current leaders is the fault of the 24 hour news cycle. What exactly are we talking about here? Presumably not radio; as we’ve had regular news bulletins on that for a while (those crowds were outside Parliament in no time on 11 November). So it must be TV. ABC’s News 24 has only being going since July, so he must mean Sky News. Been around since 1996, viewership around 13,000.

Apparently, it’s also the fault of the polling organisations, especially since Newspoll decided to go fortnightly.

Leaving aside that this is all starting to sound like a thumping plug for the influence of the Murdoch stable, are we really saying that a TV station with a tiny viewership and an extra two polls a month are changing the shape of Australian politics?

Egypt is a reminder, if it’s needed, that politics is shaped by social forces, not the media (social or otherwise, Twitter might be “social” but it will never be a “force”, at least of the type that can keep thugs out of Tahrir Square). No matter how much it likes to think so, the media is not society.

There’s no doubt some truth that Australian politicians today are heavily influenced by the media; he quotes Gillard nicely summing it up:

Something that was a blockbuster at 10 a.m. when it’s announced has been tweeted about by 10.05, has been blogged about by 10.30. Then on a 24-hour TV journalists have taken to interviewing journalists about what it may or may not mean and what politicians may or may not have been thinking when they announced it. And by midday someone will be ringing my press office saying “have you go a story for me?” That’s the nature of the cycle and I think we are still adapting to that change.

It’s true that political journalism is becoming more detached from what’s going on, as the political class do as well, leaving it to fill in the quality gap with quantity on news channels going round and round like watching a washing machine going through its cycle. It is also true that the political class has become caught up in it. But how has it become so?

The answer lies in what has happened to “reform”, supposedly the subject of Megalogenis’s essay but here its main weakness: we are never that clear what “reform” actually is.

It seems to be something that is not popular – but yet voters actually want – or at least they punish those politicians who don’t do it and is why politicians today are supposed to be held in such low regard. This confusion over whether voters like reform or not extends to his sweeping historical view on the role of Labor governments:

Australians elect Labor governments to change things. They never give them large majorities, but they reward them with successive terms if they can look after the heart as well as the hip pocket … it means Labor can not run a do-nothing government because Australians will mark it more harshly than the Coalition when it fails to deliver reform.

If this is true, then there is a little re-writing of the history narrative here. The usual story is that voters punish Labor for too much reform, rather than not enough. That was certainly supposed to be the story with Whitlam (and neither did the hip pocket get hurt during Whitlam, real wages went bananas) and nationalising the banks was supposed to be one step too far in 1949. Maybe this does need re-writing but Megalogenis hasn’t done it.

Even for the Labor government that he clearly is talking about here (the only one really with “successive terms”), Hawke/Keating, it is usually accepted that the reason why Labor hung on longer than expected was because they opposed economic reform, namely Hewson’s Fightback in 1993. As we shall see, this is not the only time Megalogenis has problems with this particular election.

While we are not sure whether voters like it or not, we are also not sure when it was. Megalogenis draws a line on the reform period from 1983 to 2000. Finishing it fairly early in Howard’s government is fair enough. But even on Howard’s reform period there is some confusion. Megalogenis means here of course the GST, an economic reform where Howard apparently stood firm against opposition and put his popularity on the line.

Yet one of the insights of his earlier book The Longest Decade, and repeated here, is that the notion that Howard introduced the GST because he thought it was right, rather than popular, was a bit of a myth. Howard’s own Chief of Staff, Sinodinos, puts it right when he says it was more about needing an issue to give the government a sense of purpose and fight the drift in Howard’s leadership that was leading to defeat or at least him losing his job. Even the Man of Steel coyly concedes the point:

I don’t know that I sat down and thought what the implications for my leadership were. I just knew it would be very bad for the government if we had walked away from the GST, and something that is bad for the government is bad for the boss.

This timeline is more clearly contradicted when he starts to look at polling. Megalogenis argues that voters started to turn away when politicians started to abandon reform, but then says this happened much earlier than when Howard came in:

There is a telling measure of the disenchantment at the ballot box: the combined major-party vote. In the seventeen federal elections between 1949 and 1987, Labor and the Coalition claimed more than 90 per cent of the first-preference votes between them, in all but two of those contests … in the eight federal election between 1990 and 2010, only one result came to the 90 per cent benchmark: 1993. Ring any bells? That was Australia’s last genuine battle of polices and values, between Paul Keating and John Hewson.

Yes but who won? And on what basis? If we put aside what Megalogenis refuses to admit was a victory against economic reform in 1993, then we seem to be really left with the 1980s as the Golden Age of Reform that somehow ended up with voters turning away. In particular, it is Labor’s vote that led the decline in the two-party primary vote. Why? Megalogenis thinks:

The party is a perverse victim of the Hawke-Keating economic miracle. The proportion of blue collar has declined over the past twenty-five years. Professionals have taken their place, and they are drifting to the Greens.

So the argument seems to be that the Hawke/Keating economic miracle has turned all those blue collar workers into ghastly upwardly-mobile Green-loving inner-city professionals that Gerard Henderson doesn’t like.

This seems an odd conclusion and not just because, by Megalogenis’s polling numbers, it seemed to happen remarkably quickly, even before the Hawke/Keating era was over.

It is also an odd conclusion because of this fact: between 1984 and 1990 the average Australian employee suffered arguably the biggest sustained drop in real incomes since the war. Average employee median incomes fell around 3-8% in real terms, depending on the measure you look at. Just to put this in an international context, in the UK and US average real wages rose by between 10-25% over the same period.

In other words, the average UK and US employee did better under right-wing union-bashing governments than Australian employees did under a union-supported government headed by the former leader of the ACTU.

Not only did Australians get paid less during the Golden Age of Reform, they were working longer to earn it. The GA of R reversed what had been decades of decline in employee working hours, which used to be considered the normal benchmark for a developing society, with average hours going steadily back up until Howard came in. On top of all that, the affordability of the main thing those incomes would be spent on, housing, went through the roof to a level that means we have never seen housing being as affordable again as it was before Hawke came in.

That was really the reform which Megalogenis is trying to get at. To listen to commentators about this period, there would be the impression that floating the currency and financial deregulation were strokes of political genius. If that is the case, genius must have been in ready supply because everyone was doing it, for medium size economies like Australia, it was practically mandatory after the collapse of Bretton Woods. The question was never whether it would happen or even when, but who pays? In the UK and the US, the income gap widened during this period but it was in Australia that it happened at the expense of the average employee.

Indeed in Australia, the Fraser government had been trying to join the move by the right elsewhere to deregulate. The problem was that the right in the UK and the US had their legitimacy not only from the defeat of the left but all the institutions of establishment, military power, history, monarchy, that the right can call on. But other than the discrediting of Whitlam, Fraser had little more behind him than the go-ahead from a drunken Vice-Regal. Not quite the same thing. It was the weakness of the right which is why the liberalisation had to happen under the left in Australia, and it was the weakness of the left, and the union movement that supported it, which is why it could.

It was a betrayal for which the social base of the union movement and the ALP never forgave it. Union membership began its inexorable decline and as Megalogenis notes, Labor only once polled on primary less than 40% in the post-war period (1977) until then -after 1990, it did it five times. The polling reality is that it was Hawke/Keating who lost the battlers, not Howard who won them. But then, even claiming your base are racist bogans swayed by Howard’s dog whistles is no doubt more comfortable than the truth.

When Labor returned under Rudd, it did so with the lowest primary vote of any incoming government since the war and only by not only setting himself up against the old political system but also the party he led. One legacy of this was that Rudd came in without what had made Labor the party of reform, its relations with the unions. It was no coincidence that as a result, it was the first Labor government in Australia’s history that didn’t attack its own base during an economic downturn.

For Megalogenis, reform was the Golden Age because the press had a privileged position of selling it to everyone, something he describes so well in The Longest Decade. Contrary to what some might say, Keating knew how to play to vanities when he wanted. So since for Megalogenis, reform is terrific, the fairly straightforward cause and effect between reform and the decline of the two party system can not be. So he has to think of another reason. Enter again those lucky blue collar workers, this time now in a slightly less attractive form than your Green-voting professional:

The older the voter, the greater the resistance [to reform]. And herein lies the rub. Voters aged fifty-plus are fast approaching the point where they will account for half the electorate … Julia and Tony meet the baby boomers, the spoilt generation that we can no longer afford to indulge.

As Megalogenis looks around for blame, that can’t possibly be laid at the feet of the old two party system, then all the moaning about selfish voters, too much polling and focus groups starts to take on a slightly unpleasant anti-democratic tone.

However, for this blogger, probably the most bizarre defence of the two party system comes over what for Megalogenis is the most personal – immigration.

In contrast to the defensiveness of current politicians over immigration, Megalogenis compares the way politicians in Menzies’ day reacted to a poll which asked voters “whether or not Australia should get immigrants” from a list of seven countries: with The Netherlands, Sweden and France scoring a strong yes while “at the other end of the scale” it said no to people from Greece, Yugoslavia and Italy. As Megalogenis explains:

The reason for the discrepancy can be seen in the response to Germany. Unlike the Greeks, who were our allies in World War II, the Germans [who polled better] had the advantage of “white” skin.

Nevertheless Megalogenis’s Greek mother could come over because Menzies ignored the poll and let the Italians and Greeks come over and so:

we can score the 1940s and ‘50s and the 1980s and 1990s as glory days for public policy because community prejudices and vested interests were confronted.

Readers unfamiliar with Australian history might now be asking the obvious question: why was the poll and Megalogenis talking about immigrants from some small countries on the other side of the world rather than the more obvious sources closer to home?

Because of course this was a time when men were men, women were women and white was white, and if you weren’t, it was unacceptable – even if you were already here. Megalogenis forgets to mention that the racial finessing between northern and southern European that he is so sensitive to, came as a result of the outright colour bar that operated for everyone else. The Greeks may have been at the swarthy end of the Caucasian spectrum, but at least they were on it. If you came from Asia or Africa you didn’t stand a chance. Megalogenis was right, compared to these days, politicians had principles on immigration in the 1940s and 1950s – and they stunk.

The White Australia Policy was the bedrock of the Australian two-party system. This is not just because both parties agreed to it, but because it also formed the framework of the relations between the union bureaucracy and employers around which the two party system revolved.

It was why when Whitlam, Dunstan and others started to break ALP ties with the unions in the 1960s, the White Australia policy was the issue it centred on. Despite Labor dumping it, some unions still valiantly clung on. Unions like Paul Howes’s AWU, for example, didn’t drop it as official policy until the 1970s.

In industrial relations, it was fairly simple; we may disagree on some things but at least we agree to keep the Asians out. By making it racial, it made union-business relations appear natural in a way that would be unthinkable today.

It summed up what was a miserable compromise that unsurprisingly ended in the 1980s by turning on its own in a way that union members in the UK and US never had to put up with. But in doing so, it broke its back and the last twenty years have seen it slowly unwind ending in the farce of Howard’s left-right cultural wars. Now in the wastelands of the Australian political landscape, Megalogenis may lament the passing of reform, and the privileged role the media had in it, even if he cannot quite put his finger on what it was. But it has gone for good, that’s for sure. Good riddance.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 10 February 2011.

Filed under Media analysis, State of the parties

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11 responses to “Review: George Megalogenis’s Trivial Pursuit

  1. Dr_Tad on 10th February 2011 12:05 pm

    Well done, TPS. The more the “reform” mythology is skewered the better.

    Will plug my take on the question late last year at Left Flank:

  2. Tweets that mention Reveiw: George Megalogenis’s Trivial Pursuit :The Piping Shrike -- on 10th February 2011 12:08 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by timdunlop, Eddie L and Ben Orvad, piping shrike. piping shrike said: Reviewing Megalogenis's "Trivial Pursuit" […]

  3. James on 10th February 2011 1:52 pm

    I think George’s piece probably shows that the mainstream media is struggling to get its head around what is happening with the electorate.

    After the Victorian election, an editor at the Age told me that they had missed the story about what was going on in the electorate.

    I suspect many journalists and editors are more removed from many groups in the electorate than the politicians they so stridently critique.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 10th February 2011 4:31 pm

    I agree. The reaction to the Abbott “shit” thing is an example.

  5. James on 11th February 2011 9:21 am

    I thought Abbott’s hold on the leadership was unshakeable two weeks ago but now I think he’s in trouble.

    It’s interesting that Julie Bishop has followed so closely in the footsteps of Malcolm Turnbull recently by doing an on-line poll of her electorate about same-sex marriage. After her very public fight with Abbott, the poll seemed to symbolise a shift in alliance. Could it be that we see her bring her numbers behind Turnbull and thus bring on a challenge, especially if Abbott’s polling declines?

  6. The Piping Shrike on 11th February 2011 9:44 am

    I tend to think that Abbott’s been in trouble since he stuffed up the Afghanistan visit last year.

  7. Riccardo on 12th February 2011 7:03 pm

    I loved your post about how he couldn’t disrupt his sleep patterns by a visit to Afghan so he could maintain his wits in front of the UK Tory conference, where he would need them!

    And that Cameron would be asking him why he couldn’t form a coalition with right-leaning crossbenchers, when Cameron managed it with the LDP – such a question would be harder to deal with than the Mark Riley one.

    The public are seeing through this charade that Coalition = National Security. At best there was some incumbency advantage in 2001.

    But now having Scott Morrison running around advising defence heads on tank and helicopter numbers (a subject I can’t believe he would know anything about, nor have any credible advice besides a few LNP leaning ex-army cranks) – this charade is punctured when Mr Rabbit actually lands in Afghan and gets told its a crock.

    It was a shame that WA guy didn’t get elected in Stirling – if we do have to have some khaki in parliament, I’d like to see genuine experience in defence matters, especially defence thinking, not enthusiasts or opportunistic shadows and backbenchers.

    Remember COlin Powell talking about 1st Gulf war, how Bush snr’s cabinet were talking about winning wars, winning hearts and minds till he reminded them none of them, only him in the room had actually fought one (Vietnam), and he was not so naive about ‘winning’. And when Clinton got elected all his staff appeared to have got their information from party-funded ‘seminars’ run by think-tankers, not soldiers.

  8. Riccardo on 12th February 2011 7:25 pm

    The Mega’s ‘women and wogs’ take on the world is interesting and reflects his upbringing – but I’m not sure he’s really any different from the journos who don’t have that upbringing.

    They overstate the public’s interest in ‘reform’.

    Whitlam, it must be remembered, was only updating Australia with some social policies that had caught on elsewhere in the world, but with time running out.

    Australian endogenous economic growth drivers, terms of trade and international events were running against him, and he got elected just in time to see the forward revenue estimates collapse in front of him. Similar to Rudd. And that is what is lost.

    What alternative history might have given Whitlam time and money to implement his visions, with no Nixonian betrayal of Bretton Woods, or OPEC etc. What would they have said then?

    Or Rudd, had the GFC come now not 2008, might have been some distance into his schemes, not diverted by pink batts or school halls.

    Jim Cairns in one of his books said something that doesn’t seem remarkable now – that he preferred deficit funding for long term investments for infrastructure. What is alarming, though, is he said the ALP Right in his day were opposed to it, even before the financial crises of the early 70s, and were trying to hack into the spending commitments the party had made from the word go. This is long before Friedman, Thatcher and Reagan.

  9. Alex White on 13th February 2011 11:19 am

    Great post TPS – you’ve put your finger on my concerns with Mega’s Quarterly Essay that I couldn’t quite articulate when I read it over Xmas.

  10. Riccardo on 28th October 2011 9:42 pm

    Reread this old post – got me to thinking about that comment that the Age editor missed the vibe at the Victorian election…

    Has anyone commented that rather than worry that the parties are too dependent on focus groups – but that the parties need them at all?

    Have the ‘tribes’ in the political class become so disconnected from voters that they now can only see using focus groups?

    It was one thing to use focus groups to road-test advertising campaigns or slogans, another thing again to use them to develop policy in the absence of guiding ideology. That is the scandal.

    I put some of it down to the capital city being Canberra, enforcing physical disconnection, plus the hoops and hurdles required to achieve political office these days.

    Chifley might have driven locomotives but even John Howard did a token law degree fifty years ago so he could use a solicitor’s office to campaign for his seat in his 20s, and meet a socially acceptable wife for the job.

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