George Megalogenis is that rarest of rare creatures: an Australian and, moreover, an Australian, journalist whose work ought to be compulsory reading for any Antipodean to the left of Cardinal Pell.

At the end of a decade in which the Australian left’s traditional parliamentary base, the ALP, has been notable mostly for its timidity, and for leading an ignominious scramble towards the (empty) centre of 21st-century politics, this shouldn’t be surprising: in a desert, a puddle can look like a river. Australia in 2011 is still, lest we forget, a country where a newspaper devoted to holiday destinations, fashion, entertainment and endless po-faced reflections on “how we shag now” (Melbourne’s lifestyle-obsessed Age) is still considered left enough of centre to be regularly denounced in the Murdoch press as if it were a training camp for Maoist guerrillas.

Amid the unedifying puppet show of what currently passes for political debate in the mainstream media, Megalogenis is refreshingly interested in things other than himself. What marks all of his work is a tendency to look past personal professions of political alignment and focus instead on the economic policies and conditions that shape Australian society; not just what the nation looks like statistically, but the emotions, desires and self-images of its members. For once the swirling surface of political events seems to be being brought into relation to the underlying causes of social change.

What he offers as a political commentator contrasts markedly with the tedious — but typical — left-liberal posture which starts from the assumption that the columnist’s own attitudes and behavior (from fashion to film-going) are the apogee of rationality, tolerance, compassion, and justice and then goes on to imply how bad everything gets the further you get from sources of decent coffee …

All of Megalogenis’ talents were on display in his admirable second book, The Longest Decade. From the first page, he dispensed with one of the most carefully nurtured platitudes about Australian political life: namely, that Keating and Howard were rival deities representing opposite sides of the modern Australian soul.

Without downplaying the obvious differences between the two men (in public persona, rhetorical style, political vision), Megalogenis notes that Keating and Howard were the joint stewards of a truly radical economic shift, which reshaped the nation and its psyche. However, in describing the changes, he is neither elegiac nor triumphalist. What he’s saying in essence is: “Look at the facts. This is what happened, these are the results. What does this mean for us now?”

The body of the book documents Australia’s entry into the epoch of flexible work, flexible hours, and flexible relationships. What starts out as a monoculture, based around fairly homogeneous consumption patterns and supported by a vaguely social-democratic welfare system and protectionist trade policies, speedily morphs into a nation in the grip of the unbridled neo-liberal version of capitalism, free trade, and hyper-differentiated niche-markets, with its growing individualism and its aspirational social culture.

Although some of the changes he tracks are, of course, the products of processes set in motion in earlier decades (women coming to outnumber men in the workforce for the first time in history, for instance), Megalogenis’ “longest” decade turns out to be a time when the forces of change not only accelerate, but metamorphose. By the ’80s and ’90s it had become clear that s-x, drugs and rock‘n’roll were here to stay, as were the broader social changes brought about by the ’60s and ’70s. But they’d been deprived of their former collective, utopian and revolutionary underpinnings. An individualised version of the radicalism of earlier decades came to play a major role in shaping the psyche of the central figure of the new economy — the assertive individualist who works hard to play hard, and who’s fully involved in a febrile search for a better life with greater mobility, fewer restrictions and ever newer experiences made possible by ever more novel objects of consumption.

Megalogenis’ new quarterly essay Trivial Pursuit picks up on many of the themes of the earlier book. His particular focus here, however, is on “leadership”, or rather the near-total absence of it, in contemporary Australian politics.

The bulk of the essay consists of a catalogue of depressing facts about the failings of the major parties in the run-up to the lacklustre 2010 election. And one of the strongest impressions the essay conveys is that no one in the current parliament is motivated by anything resembling a political idea, as opposed to, say, a vague sense that ideas are … probably a good thing.

The result is a debasement of politics to the point where our politicians seem to lack all conviction, save for their unshakable faith in the polls, in the necessity of manufacturing innocuous sound-bites for media appearances, and in the assumption that there is no reality that can’t be represented in survey data. Even compared with their predecessors of a decade ago (who, for instance, kept immigration high in times of economic boom, regardless of what the polls told them), contemporary Australian politicians are incapable of shaping a conversation about “what is to be done?” They seem to have given up on the main function of leadership and instead taken to mumbling all the platitudes their focus groups deem most innocuous.

As Megalogenis points out, the lack of political vision is particularly dispiriting at a time when it’s obvious that many people, across voting patterns and demographics, are feeling disenfranchised, angry, and alienated from the institutions of parliamentary democracy. Instead of acting to address the causes of the malaise, the major parties have simply varied Aesop’s fable of the miller, the son and his donkey by trying not to annoy everyone just enough to stay in power. In doing so, they’ve ended up pleasing nobody, not even themselves.

In writing about lack of leadership, Megalogenis is not, of course, bemoaning the fact that politicians won’t play the part of grey-suited Führer-shamans, mesmerising crowds and inspiring undying devotion.  The argument, rather, is that the way parliamentary democracy functions in the age of the 24-hour news cycle is short-sighted and ultimately bad for everyone — it ensures that very little gets done. More than that though, it ensures that people will be more cynical about government in general and thus even less likely to vote the way the various political technicians are trying to make sure they will.

The lesson to be learnt is that listening to the people means more than “mmmming” sympathetically at them, repeating what you think they want to hear as if the electorate were an elderly war hero with dementia. It means, as Aristotle said, an ability to rule and to be ruled, as part of the same much-needed political art.

Bryan Cooke is a [philosophy] PhD candidate and tutor.  He blogs at: www.prettycoolforaniconodule.wordpress.com

Peter Fray

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