Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Longest Decade, by George Megalogenis

The long run of prosperity that the title of this book alludes to it seems is about to come to an end.

Here is how Mr Megalogenis ends his book (published in 2006):

‘The next recession, whenever it strikes, will have something to do with the household debt binge that Howard sanctioned when he told voters they could pay less tax if they took their money as capital ahead of income. You can bet your house on it.’

What The Longest Decade attempts is a kind of duel portrait of John Howard and Paul Keating, and through them, a portrait of the nation. After all, both men have been both treasurers and prime ministers. Howard was treasurer with the Fraser government, then the Hawke government came in, and Keating was its treasurer, then prime minister. Then Howard returned as prime minister. This covers a period of the last 30 odd years, with both men occupying these key positions during that time frame.

Both had a consensus on economic matters. Indeed, what this book points to is how ‘opposing’ sides of politics are really just factional groups of the one side of politics. Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett and Paul Keating, for example, are friends today and enjoy frequent lunches together. Maybe the same could have happened for Howard and Keating if the two hadn’t been vying for the same job? Most likely.

George Megalogenis is refreshingly non-partisan, so he sees a different picture to those who are ideologically driven. His picture is built up from economic numbers – what people actually do with their money as an indicator of national identity. Hence it’s a very prosaic picture (even boring). We may think of our selves rather romantically, but GM shows that we’re all really concerned about making lots of money and being one step ahead of the neighbours. It's a picture of a somewhat petty, yet practical people.

For example, Megalogenis talks about how during the period in which Australia went to war in Iraq, the most popular TV show was The Block, a reality TV show based on doing up slightly run down apartments and flogging them off again at exorbitant prices. Ironically, this so-called reality TV show produced highly unreal and over-the-top prices for these apartments. Other shows at the time that were popular were ‘Auction Squad’ and ‘Renovation Rescue’.

George Megalogenis isn’t critical of this behaviour though. He’s a realist about the Australian character, not a romantic. In this I think he’s eminently fair and humane. Bad leaders, he says, try to change the world in their image. Good leader, by contrast, do what those that elect them want.

This book is a political book firmly grounded in reality, in the budgets of the kitchen table. It’s a little dry, at times dull. You wish we were a little more interesting than the portrait that Megalogenis paints.

Yet if you want to see the kind of country that we have become over the past thirty years, and the men we charged with the duty of making that change, then you should read The Longest Decade.

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