George Megalogenis
Australia’s Second Chance

George Megalogenis is such a nimble writer that you can read his latest book, Australia’s Second Chance, as if it were Hebrew scripture – that is, backwards. The debates we are having today about immigration, boat arrivals, the property boom and the housing bubble are echoes of newspaper headlines and political stump speeches from 50 or 100 years ago.

Take one of the most controversial, even infamous, lines in modern Australian politics. “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” John Howard insisted when launching his 2001 re-election campaign.

Half a century earlier, Arthur Calwell, the immigration minister who initiated our postwar migration success story, said: “So long as the Labor Party remains in power, we shall insist on our sovereign rights to determine what people shall make up our population.”

Xenophobia has, as it were, a proud history in Australia. It is not the same as racism – although there is also plenty of that in our past – as Megalogenis points out. The fear of the foreigner, be it the “Chinaman” or the “dago”, was usually the result of economic uncertainty.

A union movement and Labor Party born in the struggle for an eight-hour day and a living wage for the working man and his family would not easily accept large-scale immigration that could mean 10 or 20 men competing for one job. Even Ben Chifley – the postwar prime minister whom Megalogenis credits with creating the basis of Australia’s postwar economic boom – could slip into the ugly idiom of the time. As a candidate at the 1928 election, Chifley accused conservative prime minister Stanley Bruce of putting “dagoes” before “heroes” by allegedly favouring Italian immigrants over World War I veterans in employment policy. The language around immigration was coarse, referring to inferior races and bloodlines compared with good British stock.

But Megalogenis also recognises the context in which it occurred, without excusing it. “It was a vicious cycle of unemployment, fear of foreign competition and political and media misinformation,” he writes. The recession of the 1890s had hit Australia harder than almost any other Anglo-Celtic or developed country. For much of the decade unemployment hovered near 10 per cent. Middle-class wages were stagnant or sliding.

Some of the early xenophobia had even reflected well on its victims. Alfred Deakin, our second prime minister, said of the Japanese: “It is not the bad qualities but the good qualities of these alien races that make them dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors.”

Megalogenis’s key argument is that a retreat into a fortress society is rarely successful. Throughout Australian history, high immigration has usually correlated with prosperity and an ability to survive economic downturn.

In the mid-19th century, when we were mere colonies, free immigration (on top of the earlier convict transportation) delivered high living standards that were measured in everything from the physical height of a well-fed population to the floor space of a working-class home. It was only from the 1890s to the mid-1940s, when the new nation declared itself “White Australia” and rigidly enforced the policy with – yes – boat turn-backs, that we entered a 50-year economic decline.

A country that had settled, if not exactly welcomed, Chinese immigrants during the gold rush could no longer build a domestic market for its goods. Compounding the problem was the toll of World War I, in which, Megalogenis points out, “three out of every four people who had enlisted were either killed or physically injured”. The ’20s did not roar for Australia.

But after World War II, Chifley and Calwell realised Australia was again facing an ageing and depleted population. Immigration from European countries other than Britain surged. In 1947, just 750,000 people living in Australia were born overseas. By 1971, it was 2.55 million. The migration program was not always consensual – Labor and the Coalition dissented when they thought it would help them politically – but it was peaceful and successful.

Australian racism was revealed to be broad but very shallow. Working-class Anglo men were not the rednecks of ugly legend. As Megalogenis argues, they were often the most accepting of the Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Poles, Dutch and Germans who were their workmates.

There are two quibbles one might have with Australia’s Second Chance. Megalogenis’s contention that little good emerged in the 50 years from 1890 is contestable. As the National Museum of Australia records, it was a time of women’s suffrage, the minimum wage and pensions. In 1913, we were “the working man’s paradise”. 

And while Megalogenis has one of Australian journalism’s sharpest minds and is a peerless master of data, his economic neoliberalism blinds him to a potential contradiction. Could Australia’s “closed economy” in the 20th century – with its tariffs, union-protected working conditions and strong public services supported by progressive taxation, such as education – have helped rather than hindered its multicultural and economic success? After all, many postwar migrants worked in protected manufacturing industries or set up shops and businesses in country towns that only boomed because of guaranteed prices for farm produce.

Would immigration have been received so peaceably if it had driven down wages and driven up house prices so steeply? The ’50s, ’60s and ’70s were, after all, a time of 50 per cent unionisation, centralised wage fixing and the steady release of public land for housing.

And didn’t the second generation of postwar migrants who outshone their Anglo-Australian classmates in educational and professional achievement benefit from public schools and free university education?

Megalogenis himself is a high-achieving migrant kid and his book makes an indisputable case for a nation that welcomes the outsider. But his assumptions also leave room for debate.  PT

Hamish Hamilton, 336pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2015 as "George Megalogenis, Australia’s Second Chance".

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Reviewer: PT