Tag Archives: George Megalogenis

George Megalogenis’ Exit Strategy

George Megalogenis, Exit Strategy: Politics after the Pandemic (Quarterly Essay 82, 2021) – plus correspondence in QE 83

In the opening pages of this Quarterly Essay, George Megalogenis, veteran of the Canberra press gallery, describes the way trust in the Australian government was eroded over the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd-Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison years. The key question for the essay, he writes, is:

Can Australia restore faith in good government? Are we doomed to repeat the farce of the last decade, when we avoided the worst of the GFC only to succumb to policy gridlock and American-style electoral polarisation in the recovery? Or will the visceral experience of the pandemic allow us to reconceive the political economy of the nation?

(Page 4)

It may be the key question, but as far as I can tell the essay makes no real attempt to answer it.

What it does do, with considerable flair, is spell out the history that defines the present moment. He compares the Covid recession with previous recessions, and describes the way relationships between governments and the heads of treasury have changed and developed over the decades since World War Two. He also describes the way the economists advising governments finally learned that government spending worked better than restraint as a response to economic recession.

The essay revisits, among other things, the Global Financial Crisis and the Pink Batts beat-up. It covers familiar ground, such as the way Prime Minister Morrison’s was slammed for taking a secret holiday in during the 2019-2020 bushfires meant that he was less cavalier about the Covid crisis. It discusses the way universities were left out of Covid rescue packages.

It tells these stories in prose that makes us uninitiated readers feel as if we’re understanding something, with the kind of gossipy personal touches that remind us that government decisions are made by fallible human beings, who are advised by other fallible human beings, but that fallibility is substantially decreased if public servants aren’t sacked wholesale by incoming governments, as they were by Tony Abbott.

The essay is dated 7 June 2021. By the time it was published a couple of weeks later, the current Sydney Covid-19 outbreak had begun. By the time I got to read it three months after that, a sizeable proportion of the Australian population was back in lockdown, there were weird demonstrations in Melbourne, and the prospect of the Federal Government offering the kind of leadership that would restore faith in good government seemed remote. But the essay’s final paragraph – helped along by submarine deals and more bloviating about climate change – has lost none of its force:

Morrison has yet to accept responsibility for the future. The longer he waits, the greater the risk that the rest of the world, led by a reinvigorated United States, imposes its own terms Australia


Quite a bit of the correspondence in Quarterly Essay 83 – Lech Blaine’s Top Blokes – responds specifically to Megalogenis’ discussion of the Morrison government’s treatment of universities. Megalogenis discussion is interesting – they did it because they hate universities, because universities produce Labor-voters, and because they hate Victoria and Victoria specialises in higher education.There’s a lot of nuance in the discussion, but the Morrison government doesn’t emerge from it smelling any more like a rose.

For me, the most telling response to the essay’s main thesis came from Richard Denniss, chief economist at the Australia Institute and author of Quarterly Essay 70, Dead Right (my blog post here). He laments that this essay didn’t contain ‘a lot more on possible exit strategies and the political forces that will determine which options are placed on the democratic menu and, ultimately which dish is selected.’ I love this departure from the usual calm tone of QE correspondence, in which he quarrels not so much with George Megalogenis as with his source – an economist calling out an economist rather than the journalist who may be simply innocent meat in the sandwich:

George quotes former Treasury secretary Ken Henry saying [successive governments’] hostility to government spending ‘was not something that the Australian Treasury had dreamt up … The academic consensus around fiscal policy was basically: “It’s too hard to use” … The best thing to do is sit on your hands and let the private sector work it out.’

What utter crap. No such academic consensus ever existed, and it’s not at all clear from the essay whether George believes it did. But what is clear … is the tendency in Australia for powerful people to source advice, economic or otherwise, from those they agree with.

(QE 83 page 123)

The most telling additional piece of information comes from Travers McLeod, chief executive officer of the Centre for Policy Development. The National Covid-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC), he tells us, was established by Scott Morrison in March 2020 to ‘coordinate advice to the Australian government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of the global coronavirus pandemic’. Then, on 3 May 2021, ‘with Australia at the bottom of global vaccination rates, and the Delta strain having just been used to justify a ban on Australians returning from India’, it was disbanded.

It does look as if any hope for a reasoned response in Australia to the ongoing pandemic crisis (not to mention the climate emergency) must lie with the states, or with any luck, a change of government.

SWF: My Day 3

Circumstances made me miss Friday morning at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The Emerging Artist, however, got two sessions under her belt.

10:00–11:00 am: Sri Lanka: This Divided Island. She said this was marvellous. Samanth Subramanian, an Indian Tamil journalist, spoke with Michael Williams from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. Quite apart from its main thrust, an account of the recent three-decade war and its aftermath, the conversation helped her think about the ethics of her own current art project, which involves many people making small terracottta hearts.

11:30 am – 12:30 pm: Jonathan Franzen: My Reading Life. The main things she reported was that he enjoyed the famous German sense of humour, and was influenced by a number of women writers.

At 3 o’clock the Emerging Artist went to Migration: A World Without Borders? and pretty much fell in love with Aleksandar Hemon. She bought two of his books, even overcoming her vehement dislike of zombie stories to buy his novel, The Making of Zombie Wars.

At 4:30 she went to hear Starlee Kine: From This American Life to Mystery Show and discovered a new podcast to subscribe to, dealing in ‘mysteries that can’t be solved by Google’.

Meanwhile, apart from sitting and chatting over lunch, my Festival day began at 3 with The New Australian Poetry. Unlike previously, this year’s poetry events are in largish rooms and mostly aren’t free. This one was a book launch – of an issue of the US journal Poetry devoted to Australian poets.

As we queued in the scorching afternoon sun (yes, scorching in mid- May), we were regaled by the booming opinions of a youngish man who had evidently been all over the world (perhaps his time in the US accounted for his LOUDNESS) and wanted the world to know that poetry is held in lower esteem in Australia than anywhere else.

The room was filled to capacity. After brief remarks from Don Share, soft-spoken editor of Poetry, and Robert Adamson, guest editor of this issue, we were read to by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Lionel Fogarty, Lisa Gorton, Michael Farrell and Robbie Coburn. In response to an audience request, some of them read poems by other people that appear in the anthology. Then two poets – Susan Fealy and Petra White – were drafted from the audience. Taking a cue from David Malouf the previous day, I asked if any of them would read the same poem a second time – I named Lionel Fogarty and he obliged.

There were two questions, both from the same person, one for each of the Indigenous poets. Don Share made that’s-a-wrap noises, and we were gathering up our stuff when Lionel Fogarty stepped up to his mic again and called on us to break out of our individualism and think in terms of community.

Ali Cobby Eckermann took a turn at the mic and told us, shockingly, that when she was at an international gathering of poets recently some Syrians had asked her how come she writes war poetry. They recognised in her poetry about Aboriginal Australia striking similarities to their own war-torn lives, and she realised that, however deep and strong the denial, the Australian war of dispossession is still going on.

Don Share rose beautifully to the occasion: ‘The difficulty we have in understanding a poem,’ he said, ‘is the same as the difficulty in hearing another person.’

I went home to deal with various animals, then rejoined the EA in the evening for Magda Szubanski and George Megalogenis: Rated PG (Polish and Greek), an entertaining conversation between two children of immigrants.

SWF 2011: A Good Leader is Hard to Find

The reason I am not a politician is that I want to understand.

That’s what the French political scientist Raymond Aron said when asked why he hadn’t gone into politics. The remark came to mind when I saw the number of politicians and ex-politicians in this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival line-up. Maybe there’s room for a separate Sydney Politicians’ Festival, or a Sydney Politicians’ and Political Journalists’ Festival.

Whatever misgivings I might have had, I turned up with 1600 or so others at the Town Hall last night to hear Lenore Taylor, Bob Ellis, George Megalogenis, Bob Carr, Barrie Cassidy and Kerry O’Brien chat under the heading, ‘A Good Leader Is Hard to Find’. Kerry O’B was moderator, and the first thing he did, whether deliberately or not, was to reframe the discussion. He announced the title as ‘Good Leadership Is Hard to Find’. I breathed a tiny sigh of relief, as the shift away from the personal made it a bit less likely that we’d be treated to misogyny-flavoured wit at Julia Gillard’s expense.

The composition of the panel – four political journalists, five if you count Bob ‘Sui Generis’ Ellis, and a former politician who was also once a journalist – made it inevitable that the discussion would focus on the relationship between politicians and the media. There seemed to be consensus that we lack effective or convincing leadership in the Australian parliament, that the interplay between the politicians and the relentless 24-hour news cycle is partly to blame, and that the attention both of them pay to opinion polls adds toxin to the brew. Our leaders are so busy feeding the media beast they don’t have time to think. They’re reduced to selling a message rather than advocating a case, performing rather than communicating. Political coverage is dominated by opinion polls, leadership challenges and early election speculation, with not a lot of room forin depth analytic conversation. Gone are the days when the Prime Minister would chat with journalists at the end of a long day and explain his/her thinking about proposed legislation – when Paul Keating would say to Lenore Taylor, ‘Love, this is what you need to know. The discussion was refreshingly free of blame: the way the media works has changed, and neither the politicians nor the journalists have figured out how to deal with the new reality.

There were no revelatory insights, but it was an interesting evening. Ellis and Carr stood out as phrase-makers, Carr describing himself as an amateur historian, Ellis enacting his familiar contrarian persona. For example, Carr:

In a democracy the normal relationship between people and their elected representatives is mistrust and dissatisfaction. It’s the job of the people to be disillusioned. It’s the job of politicians to disillusion.

Ellis, when asked why the ALP doesn’t adopt what he had just described as an obvious strategy

They do research instead of thinking.

It’s not that the others lacked flair, but as working journalists perhaps they were a little more willing to let the facts get in the way of a good story. So after Bob C made his fourth or fifth remark on the theme that things may be bad but they’ve been ever thus, George M said, ‘I’ve followed many election campaigns but this was the first one where the main candidates feared the electorate.’ And when Ellis spoke of the minority government as ushering in a new era of negotiation and persuasion in parliament, Lenore challenged him: ‘And you’ve seen this happen with which piece of legislation?’

The journoes have their own unrealities. George M told us how his faith in the electorate had been restored when ‘they’ decided to choose neither side of politics at the last election, but to have a hung parliament. No one on the panel said, ‘George, you’re talking nonsense. No one made that decision. All the millions of actual deciders chose one or the other. There was no “Neither” option on the ballot paper.’

There was half an hour of questions. Only one person mistook the microphone for a soapbox.

Trivial Pursuit

The new Quarterly Essay, Trivial Pursuit by George Megalogenis, has this quote in bold type on the back cover:

Rudd, Gillard and Abbott sought power in 2010 on the same dangerous premise, that no sacrifice is required to secure our future. Government on this basis is never worth it because the promise of painless change can never be kept. The voters knew it, which is why they spared themselves the inevitable let-down by hanging the parliament.

Um, George, that’s not how this kind of democracy works. The ‘voters’ didn’t get together to thrash out the issues and arrive at a consensus, or even a majority vote, to hang the parliament. No one decided to hang the parliament. A certain number of voters decided they wanted their local representative to come from one side of politics. Another certain number decided they preferred the other side. And again a number of voters decided to call down a plague on both their houses. The aggregate entity known as ‘the voters’ doesn’t have motives, or make decisions. It’s like fate, or the hidden hand of the market, or God. Its ways are not human ways.

Given that the essay was capable of such theologising, I decided not to read it.