George Megalogenis is a journalist, writer and political commentator with three decades' experience in the Australian media.
- Balancing Act: Australia Between Recession and Renewal (Quarterly Essay 61) (2017)
- Australia’s Second Chance: What Our History Tells Us About Our Future (2017)
- The Australian Moment (2012), awarded the 2013 Prime Minister's Literary Award for Non-fiction and the 2012 Walkley Award for Non-fiction
- Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the End of the Reform Era (Quarterly Essay 40) (2010)
- The Longest Decade (2006)
- Faultlines: Race, Work and the Politics of a Changing Australia (2003).
George is a regular panellist on the ABC’s Insiders program and has appeared on Melbourne community radio RRR’s Breakfasters program.
Nic: George Megalogenis is one of Australia's foremost economic and political commentators and analysts. He has the knack of being able to analyse and distil often complex ideas and information into considered, intelligent, yet easily digestible pieces and I want to find out how. George, welcome to The Garret.
George: How are you, Nic? Thank you for inviting me to your podcast.
Nic: Absolute pleasure. Do you remember when you realised or were first told that you could write?
George: That is a really good question. So, at the launch of my very first book, the publisher of that first book, Henry Rosenbloom, said in the launch speech that ‘He can think and write’, which was unusual for a journalist, because he didn't like journalists.
George: I think he didn't like journalists. I think he was taking... I think he was having a lend at me. But I think that's the first time anyone actually said it, and that was at the end of 2003, so it was a long time coming, that observation. I couldn't take it as a compliment because I didn't know whether he was taking the piss or not.
Nic: [Laughter] Did you come from a family where ideas were freely discussed and debated and encouraged?
George: Yeah. We had a very active kitchen table at home. My father came to Australia as a teenager, so he was 16 years old when he landed in 1950. My mother migrated in 1962. She was 20 when she headed off for Australia. They met, of all places, in the sort of literary hub of Carlton, so they would never have met in Greece. He was an islander. She was from the very north of Greece, Greek Macedonian and the Italian side of Greece, from Ithaca.
Dad… You have to imagine for a migrant in the 50s and 60s in Australia, Australia is a pretty isolated place. Dad was a fairly active individual. He wasn't very sociable, but he was a very active person. He had a job at the Victorian railways and always had the short wave radio on. There were three papers in our household. This is quite interesting, thinking back, because I became a journalist and I often wondered where that spark was lit. It was an unconscious spark that my father lit. We'd get The Melbourne Sun in the morning, the old Melbourne Herald in the afternoon, so it's morning broadsheet, afternoon... Morning tabloid, sorry, afternoon broadsheet.
Nic: Morning tabloid, afternoon broadsheet.
George: I’m confusing them completely now. And he'd also read The Sporting Globe, which was that pink paper, I think he'd get it once a week. He wasn't that big a footy fan, he was more a soccer fan. He certainly was a punter, but a very, very modest punter because we weren't that well off. We never went without, but we weren't indulged by the same token. But across the kitchen table – and Mum told me this many years later and I haven't forgiven her for the punchline to this story – she said that I used to keep scrapbooks from a very, very early age: footy, the Apollo missions. So the idea – and remember I'm born in 1964 so the moon landing is my first year at kinder – the moon landing and football were sort of my two reference points as a little fellow, and I'd keep scrapbooks, just basically tearing up all sorts of things out of the papers that Dad would bring into the house. Later, it was a great privilege to go and buy the afternoon Herald for him, when I was allowed out.
George: I think that's where the literary side came in. Politicians would occasionally... They think innocently but they're a little patronisingly, you know, so ‘Where'd you learn to speak English in a migrant household?’ I was born in Australia to Greek parents, but I don't remember them not speaking English at home.
My Dad had been in Australia for 14 years when I came into the world and, as I said, he had the short wave radio on, the racing radio is on, the news is on, and there are papers across the kitchen table every day. To all intents and purposes, it was like being raised in a writer's house or in a journalist's house, but he was a consumer of media, a consumer of news. And that's where that discussion starts. We were very conscious of current affairs.
I'm trying to think of a first active political memory would be the 1972 Whitlam election. By the time of the dismissal in 1975, which polarised our school... We were in Year 5 that year. 1975, I would have been in Year 5. It was also a very politicised time in Australia, in Australian public life.
Nic: It was.
George: You know this now as an adult, looking back, but as kid, that was the world you were popped into.
Nic: So you went on to study economics at university. I'm wondering, did you always want to just write about economics or did you have some idea of maybe taking the more lucrative option of becoming an economist for a bank or...
George: You've ended up looking at the qualifications and then retrofitting what I ended up writing about.
Nic: That's right.
George: I went into the uni with no other plan but to become a journalist. I went into uni so I could apply for a graduate cadetship at The Sun and The Age and The Herald in those days.
Nic: So, where did the interest in journalism come from? You're talking about the parents having newspapers.
George: I think it was subconscious... But certainly conscious by the time about 15 or 16. No, so this is the other punchline.
I wrote for myself but I didn't write for the school newspaper at Melbourne High, and I certainly didn't write for a local paper, and that was to count against me at the first round of jobs I applied for when I immediately left uni. I flunked all those cadet interviews because I had, literally, no body of work to show them. I came back the next year and I got asked the question again. ‘Good to see you back again. What happens if you don't get a job this time?’ I said, ‘Well, I'll go look for a job in the local paper’. The then Editor in Chief of The Melbourne Sun –I won't name the guy because he probably won't remember this story – he said to me, ‘So, you've been at uni for three years. Why didn't you write for the student newspaper?’ There was something I picked to sort of sneer in his question. I said, ‘Oh, that's not the sort of journalism I wanted to pursue, sir’. Right answer.
Nic: [Laughter] Well done.
George: It was the right answer. I think by my mid-teens I was certainly keen to be a journo, but I didn't know any journalists. We're a very tight knit migrant family. Dad's a railways signalman, Mum's a cleaner, so we had no sort of ins into the middle of Australian society or that sort of lower middle strata where the journos and the politicians hang out. I think it was probably more luck than good management. Once I'd fixed on the idea of becoming a journalist, university was the means to an end to a graduate cadetship. I got it on the second go, but I got it as the last in at The Melbourne Sun. The Age knocked me back a second time, The Herald knocked me back a second time, and I didn't get the call until the week before that intake. Somebody had gotten multiple offers and so there was a hole in that intake.
Nic: Okay, fair enough.
George: I think I was the last one in and I was also the last one…
Nic: Doesn't matter, does it?
George: Well, I was the last one at The Sun to actually get a byline that year too…
It doesn't matter today but it is funny looking at the path in, very accidental. It could have just as easily gone the other way, not got the foot in the door in the first place, or even at the end of the first year. I saw my cadet record many years later when I left The Herald Sun to move across to The Australian. I'm sort of peeking over the shoulder of the HR person as we're sort of tidying up the accounts at The Herald Sun. I said, ‘Do you mind if I look at the cadet report?’ He showed it to me. There was a, ‘Do we give him a D grade, does he complete his cadetship and become a journalist full time?’ The Chief of Staff said yes, the Deputy Chief of Staff said no. So of course, if the Deputy Chief of Staff was rostered on when the decision was made and the Chief of Staff wasn't around for whatever reason, I would have been held back and I think that would have shot the self esteem at that age.
Nic: So, having studied economics, is that what you wanted eventually to write about?
George: Absolutely not.
Nic: Absolutely not. Tell me about your career inspiration.
George: As I said, you're retrofitting the career path and thinking that it was all meant to be. I wanted to cover sport or politics. I wasn't the slightest bit interested in business, which would have been the first option for someone with an economics background. I didn't want to do police rounds because, weirdly, I was quite a squeamish young man. I didn't want to see a dead body. Very weird… My head wasn't... It was never really been screwed on properly, but at this point if you think about all the social faux pas that a migrant kid would make in a very Anglo, Celtic, tabloid environment, you know, big, boozing, old male culture, I made them all in that first year. One of them was to tell this Deputy Chief of Staff who didn't think I was any good that I didn't want to do police rounds because I didn't think I had the stomach for it.
Nic: [Laughter] It wouldn't have gone down well.
George: I actually did a couple of months of police rounds and loved it. It's funny how quickly you adapt to these things.
George: But the first substantial break at The Sun was to be sent as a junior reporter covering the parliamentary session of the State Parliament. That was a dream come true at that point. I was in the state political sphere at John Cain's Premier in those days, Jeff Kennett's leader of opposition the first time around.
A couple of years into that stint, I covered a state election in October of 1988, which was a very, very close run election. Only a single seat changed hands in that campaign. A very fascinating campaign, but everyone has totally forgotten it now. Fascinating to me at the time.
The Chief of Staff, who was always looking out for me, he said, ‘There's a vacancy in the Canberra Bureau. Do you want to go to Canberra?’ I thought, ‘Why would I want to go to Canberra?’ But he said, ‘Come on, come on. You should go to Canberra’. Bear in mind, I still hadn't wised up yet to how you answer a question from authority.
This was an opportunity that I didn't see as the real dream come true. On arrival in the Canberra bureau for the morning papers group at News Ltd, so going in as The Sun's representative, you very quickly move from local and state news in Victoria for a Melbourne based tabloid to writing for five papers: The Melbourne Sun, Daily Telegraph, Brisbane Courier Mail, which was then a broadsheet, Adelaide Advertiser was then a broadsheet, and The Hobart Mercury, which is somewhere between tabloid and broadsheet, it was a slimmed down broadsheet. So automatically you have people to write for and the vacancy in that bureau was, you guessed it, economics.
First day, initiation, half a dozen beer at the non members' bar with the then Chief of Staff. He says, ‘Mate, welcome to Canberra. We've got a vacancy for economics. Do you know anything about economics?’ Okay, economics. ‘Yeah, I've got a degree in economics’. Then of course that year, 1988, was the ‘bring home the bacon’ budget for Paul Keating, and Hawke and Keating's relationship is beginning to fracture.
Nic: Fray somewhat, yep.
George: Almost a perfect time with just a couple of years under my belt as a journalist, a perfect time to arrive in Canberra.
Nic: And towards the end of most extraordinary decade when it comes to economic reform and probably Australia's history.
George: Yes. I'm not anticipating one of your questions here, but one of the interesting things about starting where I started, as a tabloid reporter, trying to keep the language as simple as possible. In those days even my Mum was keeping my scrapbook. She threw out all my scrapbooks as a kid, but she was keeping my scrapbook when I became a working journalist, and I wanted to make sure that she could read and comprehend every article I wrote for The Sun because there was no point writing something that she didn't understand. I figured there would be a lot of people who were interested in public affairs. My Dad, obviously, could understand it, but my Mum less so, she would be interested but would need help. So I always try to keep the language very simple.
Of course, when you hit Canberra in the second half of 1998 and you're in the middle of what was then a boom and a bit of leadership tension, and quite an extraordinary debate in those days between Labour and Liberal about how much further you would deregulate the Australian economy, this was sort of tailor made. Not necessarily for someone like me, but tailor made for someone who had been raised in the way that I'd been raised. Big, open mind as a kid, and I've sort of lost my training wheels as a journalist but was still a young journalist, and taught to write simply. Translating numbers into words that could be understood was expected of me. But strangely, you don't plan these things, but this is the happy accident in the first few years before I hit Canberra, I was match fit before I even appreciated it.
Nic: Was it daunting working alongside legends of the Australian Canberra press? Were you taken under your wing by anyone or was it competitive to people who helped each other?
George: It was certainly very competitive. I was daunted once I got my head around who I was competing against, but on arrival – remember, I'm starting at the bottom of the food chain – each of those morning papers has a political correspondent and a deputy and a third person who is in the pool, essentially the junior covering the rounds that are assigned to him on behalf of all five papers. There was always two reporters more senior than you in your hometown paper who had your back. In the early days, and this is... I'm going to name a couple of them because…
George: There was Niki Savva was at The Melbourne Sun, she was the political correspondent. Amanda Buckley was the political correspondent at The Daily Telegraph. Matt Abraham was the political correspondent at the Adelaide Advertiser, and Wallace Brown, Wally Brown, was the political correspondent in The Courier Mail. Wally, especially, is no longer with us. Lovely, lovely old bloke. He had covered the first Menzies election in 49. They were all very, very generous with their time. You'd be occasionally tapping in to their story with your half a dozen paragraphs of contribution to their main story, so you would watch them up close. It was in their interest and your interest that you got along, but they didn't feel threatened by you.
Nic: Of course.
George: They were well established in their positions, so it was almost an automatic mentoring service. I think as I spent a little bit more time in it, it became a little more intimidating in the sense that you were well aware of the competition.
Nic: That was my next question I was going to ask you, with the competition, who were the ones that you most admire? There's been some absolute legends in there.
George: In the economics field, one of my immediate rivals even though we're in the same media organisation is Laura Tingle at The Financial Review and then The Australian. There were a couple of others. Michael Stutchbury, economics editor at The Financial Review, now the Editor in Chief at Fairfax. There'll be Tim Colebatch covering economics for The Age. There are a couple of people that passed through The Sydney Morning Herald, it was more their political correspondents that you felt like you needed to compete with. This is before the 1991 recession, big shake out in the media in the late 80s, early 90s, beginning first with television then going all the way through the radio and then print. You were competing, really, across the board, especially if your subject matter was Paul Keating and the national economy. I think I went from being very confident and sort of... That sort of first flush of excitement, to being suddenly very humble very quickly once you started to miss a few stories that others who'd been there a lot longer than you had were getting without, you thought, not lifting a finger.
The harder work was to get to know how that next level of insight would come in. I was pretty handy with numbers, so something that was publicly available I could interpret. But the other things, knowing what the Treasury was up to, knowing what advice was going to cabinet, knowing who was knifing who, all that sort of stuff. That takes years to get to know that stuff.
Nic: I've spoken to other leading journalists who... The one thing that they all say is that it's a game that's all about relationships.
Nic: And that's what takes time.
George: And it's very humbling. Firstly, you need to miss a few stories and then you need to make a mistake. You don't really want to make a mistake, but you learn a lot from your mistakes.
I'll give you one example. I probably shouldn't tell this story against myself, but by the mid 90s, in sort of my area, if I'd broken a story you could guarantee there would be a follow up the next day. This is still in the days where journos were prepared to acknowledge the scoop. Today, I don't think you get that as much. I think the competition is now not so much between media organisations but just to fill the digital void. It's very difficult to be looking backwards when the media cycle demands that you keep throwing stories forward.
But there was a particular budget leak I got, what I thought was a pretty good budget leak. The first round of the stories were certainly well and truly on the money, but then the specifics of what this government package would look like and two people, two sources I trusted, gave me a version of events that turned out to be wrong. I knew it the very next morning as soon as I picked up the paper and I fielded a couple of calls that morning at home from some contacts I had made, ‘I don't know where you got that but it's wrong’.
Nic: It's wrong.
George: Okay, it's wrong. Went into work, told my Chief of Staff, ‘I'm sorry, it's wrong. I got this one wrong on the front page of our paper’. The very next day, every other paper has got that story that I got wrong on their front page, the very next day. I don't know who was backgrounding on day two, but everybody got the story wrong the next day. A couple of my peers said, ‘You were about to slam the fighter jet into the cliff and you just executed’. But I'd said I made the initial mistake. It was a lot easier the next day to tell my bosses in Sydney that there on yesterday's story, which I admitted I got wrong, ‘this is the actual story’, and back on the front page on day three. I was kind of alright with that. But I'll never forget the missteps along the way to that page one blunder.
The fact that I was able to spread the blame with everybody else, personally, meant nothing. In the office politics I’d say, ‘I was right at the time but obviously the thing didn't...’ You do tend to fudge a bit, not because you're conning yourself, you're not conning yourself, but at some point your survival instincts say, ‘I'm not going to slit my wrists open for you’. But I did know what I'd done wrong and I became very risk averse for about a year after that on stuff like that. I hope I'm never going to forget that stuff.
Nic: You've written several books, many essays, and goodness knows how many long and short form articles. Which ideas interest you the most?
George: I think the idea, and it's become a more constant sort of search now, especially the last 15 years as the media cycles accelerates and I'm a bit stubborn about these things and I want to slow it down on my behalf, not because I'm lazy, but because the way my head works I probably need a little bit more time to figure it out.
Nic: That's not a bad thing.
George: A, just to figure out something new to say, and B, the challenge, the sort of high end policy that I'm trying to translate for a general reader, writing that is not that easy. It's not that easy to... I mean, it might look simple and actually sometimes you oversimplify it and it becomes banal.
Nic: Of course.
George: And that's the challenge, to try to find that sweet spot between insight and accessibility. Most of the things of concern that interest me now is how quickly the country is changing and whether the changes we're going through today are unique to us or they're common to other countries, whether they're even unique to us at this point in our history or whether we've had similar experiences in the past.
I've sort of looked back a lot more than I might have 20 years ago, certainly even than I might have about 10 or 15 years ago. So when I first started writing books and the first book I wrote was a little niche book – niche because nobody read it – a thing called Fault Lines. It had a pretty big idea in it, but a couple thousand copies would have been sold. This is the one where Henry Rosenbloom decided I could think and write at the same time.
Nic: He probably was cursing you for it. He probably thought if you just write and not think you might have sold 10,000 copies.
George: [Laughter] That's a little too data heavy, that book. I had some cartoons drawn for it. But the thing about that book that I would never do today, the thing about that book was it was so focused on the now and so focused on the current set of numbers and the insights I could draw from those numbers… I look back on that book and I could probably take the template and the next three books that follow it probably are closer to the book that I wanted to write the first time around.
I think a lot of authors will tell you that, and it even happens to non-fiction.
Nic: You have a knack of writing what seems to be, when the reader reads it, the bleeding obvious, but only seems to be the bleeding obvious when we read it from you. An example is when you're talking just before about the migrant experience being different. The fact that you've recently written how the new migrants come here with money and the old migrants came here, like your parents did, with little money and they struggled and did that. When you read that, when I read that I went, ‘Of course. It's so bloody simple. It's so obvious’. So much of what you write does seem so obvious, but not until you read it from someone who has to point out the obvious.
George: Tony Jones would say – he wouldn't say, ‘I'll take that as a compliment’, but the reason why I think I might take that as a compliment – is it's very difficult to take the implied compliment in that, which is, the bleeding obvious means everybody has missed it. I don't think...
Nic: But everyone is not seeing it the same. Well, I don't know.
George: I'm not trying to run myself down here, but I wonder maybe what I've done is almost forced, because I'm pushing against cycle. Maybe the bleeding obvious is not being covered. Everybody knows it's there, but nobody has had a chance to write about it. Whilst I'm flattered, it may be just the... I may have had enough experience to be able to recognise that this stuff is more important in the long run.
Nic: Yeah, yeah, that might be it.
George: That might recognise the importance of it. I'm certainly not claiming any genius or any insight, because it is. The interesting thing is we are... When I want to be able to describe Australia today, a lot of that stuff is right in front of our faces.
Nic: Absolutely, absolutely.
George: Interestingly enough, the story of the skilled migrant, because it has been moving so quickly, I think it has taken me about two or three goes to capture every aspect of that story. I think the first observation, which would have been the beginning of the observation in... a small section of Australian Moment where I would have touched on this, and certainly Australian Second Chance. That book is built around that idea of the big, open phase of Australia in the 19th century, that sort of closed phase of white Australia in the first half of the 20th century, from late 19th century all the way through the end of the Second World War and the reopening of Australia. The point of that book was that 21st century is where the real story is. In a funny way, I was already setting up the idea that the post war migration program, essentially my parents' story, is now old hat. But I still don't think, I still don't think I caught quite every implication in Australia's Second Chance, hence the current essay in Australian Foreign Affairs, hence, in a way ... I left some questions deliberately open in Second Chance for the Quarterly Essay, and I still feel that there's a couple of other long form pieces to come.
Nic: Do you always know what you're trying to say before you write, or have you ever changed your mind or made up your mind during the process of writing?
Nic: Give me an example where you surprised yourself.
George: The first thing is, when I started the Fault Lines book, I was expecting to describe an Australia that was certainly more xenophobic. I still think misogyny is there, but certainly more xenophobic than I imagined. I actually went into it quite sceptical because that book was sort of conceived in response to, essentially, the Tampa episode in 2001. I had the idea for this book that ‘Australia doesn't look like that election campaign’. But I also felt that if that election campaign brought the worst out in us, then Australia must be in a bad place. I went and I selected a method, which was let the data drive the story, try to take the emotion out of it, and my view changed in that exploration. That taught me a very, very important lesson.
Nic: Wow. That's interesting.
George: So the very next book is... Well, okay. You would do this as a journalist and you must continue to do this as an author, even though you think you could indulge yourself as an author with some of your prejudices…
So the very next book, a thing called The Longest Decade, I decided to put Paul Keating and John Howard in the same book. I said, ‘hang on. I've just come out thinking there's a little more complex view of Australia than I started out with for the first book. The second book, I'm going to embrace complexity by putting the two guys who hate each other into the same book’, partly because I knew something that a lot of people had forgotten, which was that they used to be friends in the early to mid 80s. Everybody had forgotten that they'd been friends, so the book sort of begins with this rather strange idea. It's almost like... They're not Hitler and Stalin, but I don't know if you remember that book that Bullock wrote many years ago, Hitler and Stalin.
George: I thought, I like that parallel history frame, but what I was doing was -
Nic: I'm glad you qualified.
George: What I was doing was writing about the previous Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister. Weirdly, nobody had thought to do that before. Those two things, those two exercised, the one sort of having to figure out Australia beginning with a prior assumption which didn't stand up to scrutiny, and then putting two people in a book to be able to capture almost the polarity in Australian public discourse though these two people and not choose between them, and force myself not to choose between them.
In fact, I got to the point where the most fun in that particular book was the appendix, where the two of them were yelling at each other. They hadn't spoken to each other for about five or six years at this point, and interviewing both of them, I realised that there was something strange happening between the two of them where they're sending telepathic messages to one another. I was almost irrelevant to the book, as the author. Their voices dominated the book, and all I was doing was facilitating an argument between them, which was a lot of fun.
Nic: Between them, yeah.
George: I did get the two of them – I don't know if you know this – I did get the two of them to launch the book. Howard launched in Canberra and then Keating launched a couple of days later in Sydney. This is in the middle of 2006. Keating said, ‘You know, tell Howard, if you haven't got him over the line, that I won't bag him in the launch speech’. I got Howard over the line, Howard launches. A couple of days later, Keating bags him in the launch speech, as you do.
Nic: As you do, yeah. Does an ideas man like you enjoy fiction? Do you have time to read fiction? Do you enjoy reading fiction?
George: I enjoy reading fiction but I don't have time to read fiction. Does that make sense?
Nic: Yeah, yeah. You'd like to read more.
George: I'd like to read more but I'd probably can't afford to.
Nic: But you don't.
George: I probably can't afford to.
Nic: When you have had time to read fiction, which Australian writers do you admire?
George: Winton and Flanagan, in fact I'm reading Flanagan now. I actually covered the anti-hero of his book for a couple of court cases when I was a young reporter. We're going to have to compare notes one day on him.
Nic: Just finally, you can have four politicians over for dinner, living or dead, from any nation, from any time.
George: Oh, that's too hard.
Nic: Who would you have for dinner?
George: Politicians. Just full politicians?
Nic: Statesmen and stateswomen.
George: If we made it national leaders, I'd like to get... This is a strange one. I'd actually like to get a couple of the Second World War leaders in. Everyone would say Churchill, but I'd want Curtin in there, from the Australian perspective, and I'd want Roosevelt in there from the U.S. perspective. I might leave Churchill to one side because we're very familiar with his voice because of his biographies. Who are the two Australians you'd stick in there? You'd stick the one in transition. You'd plunk Menzies in there, only because the country has changed irreversibly so you'd want him to confront the present. Who'd be the fourth one? At the moment that dynamic ... Could you get a conversation going with the three of them? I'm not sure, so the fourth one, I wouldn't ... I could catch up with Keating if I felt like it, but I'd probably want to put him in there anyway.
Nic: I was going to say Keating.
George: I'd want to put him in there anyway. In a funny way, what I'd be looking at is the lifespan of my parents and myself, but via an international and Australian perspective. It'd be quite an interesting dinner party. I'd be writing books for the next 50 years out of them.
Nic: I'm sure you would. Thank you for spending time with us today, George. It's been fascinating.
George: It's been a pleasure, thank you.
Nic: Keep writing about Australia, keep letting us know what we need to know.
George: Thank you. Well, I'll keep exploring, even if I don't know what I'm looking for. Cheers.