Quarterly Essay 40: Trivial Pursuit – Leadership and the End of the Reform Era – George Megalogenis

I’ll say this upfront: George Megalogenis’s Quarterly Essay, Trivial Pursuit, is awesome.  Published at the end of last year, it is a response to the dismal 2010 Australian Federal election, which many political commentators labelled the worst election in Australian history due to the stage managed, petty politics employed by the leaders of the major parties, and the complete absence of meaningful policies.  The electorate became disengaged, with high numbers of informal votes recorded (Australia has compulsory voting, for those from overseas), while those in politics in the media were left asking, Where did Australian politics go so wrong?  Megalogenis (despite having a name that is very difficult to get right) offers up some answers.

As the title of the essay suggests, the problem is that government can’t pass meaningful reform that the country needs, such as the Emissions Trading Scheme or the mining tax.  As Megalodon sees it, this is a result of the changing media environment, poor leadership, and the growing influence of polling and special interest groups.  At the root of the problem is a culture of impatience, leading to debate about public policy that is “thin, but not deep”.

According to Megawati, The demands of the 24 hour news cycle and the shrinking resources of traditional media outlets mean that journalists and commentators no longer have time for meaningful analysis and investigation, but instead are forced to appease the public’s constant hunger for novel content.

Megaman goes on to say that the most recent Australian Prime Ministers, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and John Howard (at least in his last two terms), allowed themselves to become slaves to the contrary media, believing that if they did not find some way to capture the public’s attention, it would go to their opposition.

This took their attention away from the business of running the country and whittled away their capacity to mount a sustained argument for sweeping reform, exacerbated by an over reliance on polling.  The weakness of this method of governing was made all too clear when Rudd abandoned the Emissions Trading Scheme when it became unpopular with voters, which lead him to overcompensate with his rhetoric when trying to implement a tax on the unprecedented profits of mining companies.  In turn, the Labour Government knifed Rudd when he slumped in the polls and his successor, Gillard, unable to combat an aggressive media campaign by the mining giants, struck a deal that saw significantly less revenue spread across the economy.

George Megamangenis, economist, writer and popular video game character

This summary barely captures the depth and breadth of Megatron’s argument.  While he’s generally quite a dry writer, the boldness and accuracy of his analysis more than make up for his lack of flair.

Megalo-fi worked in the Canberra press gallery for over ten years and is a senior writer for The Australian, where he writes a blog called Meganomics, although he’s taken six months off to work on this essay and a book.  It’s obvious from his writing that his primary concern is economics, and this informs all of his analysis.  His argument is defined by what he perceives to be good for the Australian economy. 

He supports the Emission Trading Scheme not on environmental grounds, but because he believes it is inevitable and that delay will result in higher costs.  He supports a mining tax to combat a two speed economy.  And he supports a high immigration intake as it will fill skills shortages and create markets.  It is interesting to note, though, that he also uses personal arguments to support high immigration – without the Fraser government ignoring polls that told them Australians wouldn’t accept “olve-skinned” immigrants, Megamac’s family would never have been allowed into Australia.  This personal connection to a political issue seems to inform his views on politicians who appeal to Australian’s xenophobia, such as John Howard and Tony Abbott.

There are some areas that he neglects.  He can be quite dismissive of social policy, saying that Howard “reached into the show bag for another distraction” when describing the “takeover of the Murray-Darling, tax cuts, the Northern Territory intervention” .  He also doesn’t seem to have much faith in the electorate.

On closer inspection, some of his assertions not well supported.  At times, he has to resort to supporting his argument with a quote from an experienced politician or the election result of single issue political party, such as the Climate Sceptics.   But Megafauna is convincing because he demonstrates his expertise on Australian politics and economics, and, most importantly, because his statements have the ring of truth to them.

Perhaps the greatest compliment that Megamart seems to have received, though, (except for the glowing praise of this blog, of course) is that the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, seems to be taking his advice and following the Hawke-Keating method of implementing economic reform with the carbon tax, releasing the idea into the public sphere for debate and consultation before the details were bedded down.  And while the ever-disappointing commentariat have criticised her for her delivery, it has to give Megalogenis, and any writer, faith that perhaps what they write does, after all, matter.


4 Responses to Quarterly Essay 40: Trivial Pursuit – Leadership and the End of the Reform Era – George Megalogenis

  1. I found a number of his assertions to be problematic, often with ‘evidence’ distorted to fit a needed narrative. It’s a shame because he is an extremely effective writer, but he doesn’t have enough meat to go with all of his gravy.

    • Yeah, I agree that his evidence is shakey, but I think that’s a result of the subject he’s writing about. Who could provide definitive evidence on something like politics, which has so many factors influencing it, and so many ways to interpret the outcome? I’d say his meat to gravy ratio makes for a good meal.

  2. Henry says:

    I think evidence in this case is hard to measure. Often a quote from someone in the know is about as good as you’ll get.

    I don’t remember specific things which annoyed me while reading the essay however I can see how this might affect ones reading. I think however that his broader narrative should not be lost for lack of traditional evidence. Elections are shit. Governments have seemingly forgotten how to reform or the environment for reform has dissipated.

    Love the new background picture Gabe, looking good.

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