George Megalogenis clearly has adoring fans. “Oh, we’re part of George’s Groupies,” said one woman standing in line for his sold-out show. When quizzed by the moderator how many had been to his event the night before, three-quarters of the audience lifted their hands.
And before long it became clear why.
Described by Annabel Crabb as “Australia’s greatest explainer”, the man has the air of your favourite history teacher. Perhaps it’s the floppy hair or crumpled suit. More likely, it’s the sense he has much knowledge to impart, but such limited time.
As one of the country’s most respected political commentators, at 52 Mr Megalogenis is a man of many talents: journalist, Walkley Award winner, author, documentary maker and now a national historian.
His second festival event, based on his new book, Australia’s Second Chance, had a clear message from the outset: the nation is at risk of a cyclical, economic groundhog day, but we have the chance to do something about it.
“Australia performs best when we are open to migration,” he told the Main Stage audience at the Roslyn Packer Theatre. “Mass migration explains our success.”
As a high-achieving kid from a migrant family himself, Mr Megalogenis has charted Australia’s cycles of boom and bust through the prism of migration, and makes a strong case for a nation that welcomes the outsider.
In a lesson spanning history, economics and social demography, he noted that for most of the 19th century, Australia had the highest standard of living in the world. But the lengthy boom was followed by a 50-year bust; and the country lost its nerve and its luck, and closed its door to the world.
Now, the nation’s prosperity is back, he said. But can we continue to make it work for us, or will we blow it again?
As in his recent Quarterly Essay, Balancing Act, Mr Megalogenis argued for national reflection. This time, instead of rethinking the line between market and state, he said, Australians need to understand they are “at the crossroads between relapse and national maturity”.
“Australia’s [current] economic streak will end and there is much to be genuinely concerned about,” he said. “Our past can really tell us a lot about our future.”
Referring to Liberal Party pollster Mark Textor’s idea that Australia is suffering a form of performance anxiety, that we are “on an economic pedestal” and the only way is down, Mr Megalogenis argues this perspective is infecting the national mood.
“We no longer feel comfortable in our prosperous skins,” he said. “There is a palpable fear in the community that our luck will soon run out, and that we will revert to our former state of mediocrity.”
As if on cue, comments by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton that refugees would either be “taking Australian jobs” or “languishing in unemployment queues”, illuminated the author’s argument that Australia’s biggest mistake has been succumbing to the fear of the foreigner.
Today’s debates around immigration are carbon copies of those from the turn of the century or 1950, he said, reminding the audience that it was at a similar time of economic uncertainty that Australia’s first immigration minister declared: “Two Wongs don’t make a white.”
George Megalogenis maintains the nation’s central challenge is to overcome an underlying xenophobia, which even extends to offspring of migrants from generations past “who close the door on the next wave of migrants”.
“It’s not all bad, though,” the self-described optimist said. “We’ve reached a crucial moment in Australia’s history which so closely resembles a previous turning point that it’s like a second chance.
“Yet it’s one that seems out of place in today’s political discussions – an Australia that welcomes the outsider to fuel economic growth.”
Mr Megalogenis said the thread that “connects the past to the present and future is the ongoing conversation between those who came to these shores, and those who received them”.
The nation has been at its best and most successful during periods of strong migration, he maintains, while those times when the doors have been shut were defined by busts.
“When the next shock comes, will we revert to our old sheltered, internationally maligned self and endure another lost decade, or can we build on the lessons of our biggest boom?” he asked.