Thursday, March 10, 2011

Megalogenis's growth propaganda rebuked - Quarterly Essay

[Note: George Megalogenis is a journalist who writes for Murdoch's Australian newspaper, and embodies many of its views. For background see my previous posting: Murdoch's Australian pro-growth propaganda machine.]

I had not particularly focussed on George Megalogenis's views till he became the author of the summer edition of  Australian Quarterly Essay (no. 40).

In the following issue, no. 41, just out in early March 2011, I published a lengthy rejoinder dissecting his views and showing how little substance there was behind his confident front.

In his right of reply (in the same issue)  Megalogenis tried to slide past my criticisms, "I enjoyed Mark O'Connor's contribution, even when it got a tiny bit personal". But he has clearly learned nothing. He was soon using the same kind of circular logic, plus factitious accounts of  Australian political history similar to those I had dissected in his original article. For instance:

"There are too many examples of Australia taking the soft option in its history. Slowing population growth and erecting the tariff wall were the easy things to do after Federation... That's why I err on the side of growth; it helps keeps Australia younger than most and increases the chances that one of the new intake, or their children, or one of their locals, will come up with a smarter way to live with our boom-bust ecology. Then there is the live case study of New South Wales, the only state in the federation that actively pursued a slower population-growth policy over the past decade. Two things happened to New South Wales. Its population grew at half the national figure --as intended -- but so did its gross state product. [Fancy those frustrated Sydney commuters not realizing that their problems were due to Sydney not growing fast enough !]  ... All roads in the reform debate lead to the dead end of New South Wales, the state with arguably the shortest attention span. The NSW disease infected national politics under Howard Mark II, Rudd, and now Gillard...."
Like Colonel Gaddafi, George Megalogenis often seems to inhabit a parallel universe where laws of logic and relevance do not apply, and where a version of history can be found to validate whatever one wishes to believe.  Perhaps it was a waste of my time to take issue with someone like this. But here is my rejoinder to his original article.
George Megalogenis's essay  Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the end of the reform era  
(Quarterly Essay  no. 40,  December 2010)
George Megalogenis is a very talented fellow. Astute and witty, sane yet mordant, he illuminates the oddities of Australian politics. He plows through political exchanges most of us never got to the bottom of; yet he keeps us entertained, and every now and then flashes out with a witticism Oscar Wilde might have envied.  Thus he remarks on the Menzies-Murdoch controversy “I think a reverse burden of proof should apply in these cases: a politician should be assumed to be paranoid unless he can prove otherwise” (page 81).  He also describes Hawke and Keating last year as “Like two old bulls who didn’t know when to stop charging”.  One can forgive the odd oversimplification when it leads to quotes as memorable as these.
          Such were my first impressions as I skimmed the piece.  Then I got a jolt on page 24 where he accuses Julia Gillard of  “joining the dots from the boats [i.e. boat-people] to the immigration numbers to the population debate”,  and claims in the same breath that  “the notion of a sustainable Australia” was “a dogwhistle” that Julia herself had invented.   This is simply too tendentious to pass.  The fact that Megalogenis has (fairly clearly) no understanding of the sustainable population issue does not give him the right to malign those who do see it as a major policy issue; and the implied conflation of boat-people and immigration numbers is simply innumerate. Boat people number in the very low thousands a year, whereas gross immigration has been over 500,000, and net migration close to 300,000. The boat-people are all but irrelevant to the population debate; immigration numbers emphatically are not. Differentiation please, George!
As yet my response was not so much annoyance as an old editor’s instinct to protect authors from themselves, to say in effect: “Hang on! Do you need to say that? You just might be losing (or confusing) half of your audience there.”  —Or in this case at least 70%. Research in People and Place[i] shows that barely 30% of Australians accept George’s view that Australia needs more people, and one might suspect only a minority of that 30% would deny that the sustainable population camp has a valid point.
Yet, the problem recurred.  Population policy, it seems, is his King Charles’s head — it gets in everywhere; and each time it does, there is something strange about Megalogenis’s take on it. Oddities start on page 1 with his imaginary letter to Murdoch during the 2010 election campaign: “Dear Rupert … Neither candidate deserves to win. Julia won’t talk the country up, Tony keeps talking it down.” This is simply untrue unless he is referring not to nationalist rhetoric but specifically to Murdoch’s and the Australian’s  agenda of promoting indefinite growth of Australia’s population  under the slogan of  “big Australia”  —in which  case it is also untrue. Neither leader promised any end to Australia’s rapid population growth, only a certain scaling back in the speed of it. Neither would stop paying baby bonuses. We need to remember that Australia’s annual rate of population growth has been running at nearly twice Indonesia’s, and between four and six times the average of industrialised countries.
A few lines later Megalogenis goes further, asserting that in the election campaign both leaders screwily “competed for the right to shrink the nation”.  This again makes little sense unless he is talking primarily about population — in which case it still makes little sense! With natural increase (surplus of births over deaths) running at well over 100,000 a year, no political party, not even the new Sustainable Population Party which wants to keep net migration (immigrants minus emigrants) around zero, does or could offer any current program for “shrinking the nation”.  The statement, as made, is innumerate, and extremist.
A central thesis of the Essay is that our politicians showed lack of courage and idealism by giving in to those who made the most noise on (a) population and (b) emissions.  Yet Megalogenis’s easy amalgamation of these two causes makes little sense. The climate sceptics party in 2010 got only 0.03% of the vote, as he himself admits; whereas those who want population growth scaled back are not some claque but a vast majority of Australians, and even of immigrant Australians, and are backed by an array of experts. 
Though he can’t leave the topic of population policy alone, Megalogenis shows no signs of having done his homework in the area. I get the feeling that it’s an emotional issue for him, one on which he can’t bear to read those who disagree with him. There is, for instance, no reference to Flannery, or to Barry Jones.  The Australian Academy of Science’s warning that to push population beyond 23 million (not far from the present 22.5 million) would damage both the environment and the quality of life of future generations, has clearly passed him by.[ii]  So has Birrell and Healy’s demonstration that it is simply impossible to reduce our greenhouse emissions in the way Rudd promised if we let population blow out towards Treasury’s prediction of 32 million by 2050. Also missing is CSIRO’s Future Dilemmas report —still our most detailed look at Australia’s future options.
Megalogenis ignores the Australian Conservation Foundation’s formidably documented nomination of population growth as a threatening process for the Australian environment, and likewise the stern warnings about population growth in Australia’s recent State of the Environment reports and in Australia’s official report to the UN on its rapid loss of biodiversity. He seems unaware of resource depletion and Peak Oil; and he badly needs to read the Carr Report’s lucid warnings against the Ageing Population Scare, and against the myth (which seems an article of faith for Megalogenis) that pushing up population makes us wealthier.[iii]  
Indeed this growthist view, though universally advocated by the Murdoch Press’s economics and politics writers, has only patchy support from economic and political writers elsewhere in what I am tempted to call the free press. Economists as varied as Saul Eslake and Richard Denniss demur. As Ross Gittins puts it, “the economic case for rapid population growth is surprisingly weak”; indeed two recent comprehensive articles by Gittins leave the growthist case in tatters.[iv]
Interestingly, this Essay’s publication coincided with the latest edition of Dissent, in which the former Queensland Labor Minister Andrew McNamara argues that "Any talk of sustainability without a commitment to population stabilisation is not just spin; it is a dangerous lie", and accuses Gillard, Abbott and the Greens of  failing “to call for the massive cut to immigration levels that is necessary to be creditable on the environment”.   
Megalogenis suggests that Gillard’s populist cowardice led her to invent an imaginary population problem, or alternatively to project upon other Australian cities an urban congestion problem that primarily affected Sydney. (“Gillard’s Sydney-led race to the bottom on immigration”, page 22).  This sounds tendentious. In fact FOI material recently obtained by the West Australian shows that the Prime Minister’s own department warned her that “demographic pressures will negatively affect living standards, particularly in cities, as housing prices rise, congestion increases and it becomes more difficult to access services." Also that voter anger is rising, based on “the perception that the quality of city life is declining [which] is supported by declining measures of liveability (including from greater congestion and longer commuting times) … and a lack of affordable housing." [v]
Yet Megalogenis talks as if population growth was a sort of free lunch to which only foolish populists could object. There are paragraphs of pure Murdochery like the claim on page 25 that “We should be expanding the immigration program to mine the youth belts of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Continental Europe…  Pay their airfares if need be”. Concerns about urban congestion and commute times are sneered out of existence.  (“Voters were more worried about congestion, about asylum-seekers, about any damn thing really.” p. 21).  
As for the environment — who cares if it takes another hit? Treasury Secretary Ken Henry admitted in 2009 to being appalled at the thought of  the further damage population growth to 32 million by 2050 would probably do: Must it mean an even greater loss of biodiversity - difficult as that might be to imagine, given our history of species extermination?”  Megalogenis magisterially brushes the issue away. “I’m prepared to argue that Australia is better off putting the people ahead of the services, and taking the risk of straining the environment  in the short term” , he says on page 24. (And just when would this short term be over?)
There follows a seriously loopy attempt to claim that Sydney’s congestion is due to Labor’s not being willing to grow the city as fast as Brisbane.
None of this shows any lack of intelligence; but there is willfulness, and a lack of rigor. Argument is largely lacking in Megalogenis’s essay. Mostly he just asserts, or else narrates a highly selected story. There is of course some awkwardness in a Murdoch journalist offering us an account of how our politics are corrupted by media influence and plutocracy . . . 
The oddities of viewpoint grow as the Essay proceeds. Gillard’s “back-sliding on immigration”, he tells us on page 11, reflected “the policy cowardice of the times.” Well yes, Gillard did backslide, in the face of business and media pressure (some of it applied by Megalogenis himself) on her initial promise to break with “big Australia”. 
When Scott Morrison persuaded Tony Abbott, shortly before the 2010 election, to promise a small but symbolic reduction in the Immigration Department’s projected future levels of net migration (from 190,000 a year to 170,000), she refused to match it. But one gets the feeling that this is not what Megalogenis means.  In his lexicon, ‘backsliding on immigration” means suggesting the public’s wishes should be respected.  
Gillard’s real backsliding came at a cost. The population vote, which she had seemed sure of, slipped away while she and Tony Burke havered; and most of it wound up with the Greens, nearly costing her government. But Megalogenis can’t accept this moral. He pretends it was her initial promise to break with big Australia that cost her the public’s respect. Granted that the public solidly opposes big Australia, this is implausible.
But then, Megalogenis is ambiguous about public opinion, and indeed democracy. To the business Right (by which I mean roughly the ideology that emanates from the Australian newspaper) democracy means not government by the people or for the people so much as government of the people by those who know best. 
When he does try to take on the other side in this debate, it becomes clear he has only the vaguest idea where they are coming from.  For instance, one deep concern about Australia’s rapid population growth  is to do with house prices, “mortgage slavery”, and the pressure on marriages, families, and quality of life as both partners are forced to work full-time and overtime, etc.   Yet Megalogenis tells us we should be grateful (page 21) that “large-scale immigration kept our house prices rising”. He slightly distances himself (page 25)  from “the business case for immigration”, but still sees nothing much wrong with the argument that we need the world’s highest per capita immigration rate “because they [the immigrants] will pay well above the reserve for your house.” Note that “your”. It is assumed the reader is a house-seller, or a house-speculator, rather than a house buyer.
There are odd points in the piece where he suggests that he sees himself as being roughly where he claims most Australians are: a little Left of centre. He could not be more wrong!  George is clearly of the big-business Right — by which I mean not necessarily intolerant on social issues, but anti-populist, rigid in its belief that what matters most is the economy, and pro whatever conditions help the rich (and therefore, he would argue, most of the rest of us) get richer.  These conditions, it seems, include indefinite growth of GDP and of population.    
In an essay full of false segues, the crucial failure comes on pages 17-25, just before he asks “So when did polling gain the right of veto over policies such as immigration and climate change?”  Megalogenis tries to show that Gillard’s and Abbott’s hostility to immigration was based on slavish following of the polls when evidence and logic pointed the other way.  But neither is in fact hostile to immigration; both seem to be partly defying the polls on both issues; and Megalogenis fails to show that much evidence or logic are on his side. At this point his essay’s structure is in tatters. 
It’s not that one couldn’t tell a fascinating narrative — beginning perhaps with the Howard Government’s 1999 promise that Australia’s population wouldn’t need capping because it was only heading for 23.5 million[vi] — about how our politicians sold out the national interest on population policy. But first Megalogenis would need to make a cogent argument (a) that the national interest demands rapid population growth, (b) that the politicians knew that, and (c) that they found or were offered improper inducements to change what should have been their decision.  
Megalogenis does none of these things, and especially not the last, because of course the truth is the reverse of what he claims. Strong inducements were offered, especially in the form of electoral “donations” and media support (both carrot and stick), but these were offered by those on his side of the debate.  His essay tells us nothing of the tactics (which Dick Smith has described) by which various vested interests (employer groups, white-goods sellers, property speculators, media moguls) constantly badger the government to increase population growth.  Instead he attempts to invert the story. The entire blow-out in immigration under Howard and Rudd seems to be (to judge from his sub-title “leadership and the end of the reform era”) a “reform” carried out by decisive leaders. 
I had no idea, when I began to pull at some strands in Megalogenis’s logic, that a full analysis of it would prove so destructive. The experience was like trying to pull off a surplus thread from one of those magnificent bulky-knit sweaters — only to find that instead of perfecting the garment’s appearance you have somehow tugged loose what binds it, and are left with a mess of tangled threads.
So what remains of Megalogenis’s thesis? The fact that Australian politics is in a cowardly and mendacious and media-driven phase? True, but as he says at the start, we knew that already. What his Essay might have offered was a philosophically accurate account of the moral mess, plus an authoritative history of how it got that way, and some possible remedies. That task is largely still to do.

[i] See  Betts, K 2010b,  ‘Attitudes to immigration and population growth in Australia 1954 to 2010: an overview’ in People and Place, 18(3), 2010, pp. 32-51.
[iv] See “Punters well aware of economic case against more immigration”, SMH November 24, 2010;  and “A few facts would be useful in the migration debate”, SMH December 11, 2010.
[v]  City life in decline, PM warned”, by Shane Wright, Economics editor, The West Australian December 20, 2010,  
[vi] Australian Government response to the Jones Report on carrying capacity, AGPS, 1999.


  1. Kate asked to have this email comment posted:

    That claim by Megalogenis in his right-of-reply is one of the most non-sensical things I have ever read! He says, If we have more people then that will increase our chances that one of them will be able to come up with a solution to the problems caused by having more people.

    Where do these people get their ideas from?


  2. I think they are paid for them by the Murdoch media. I cannot think of any other reason except money that someone would create problems for other people.