George’s war on whinging: part 1
In this special two-part feature, George Megalogenis talks to Michael Sweet about his work and what led a ‘nervy kid’ from Richmond to where he is today
Arguably the most influential Greek Australian journalist of his or any other generation, George Megalogenis is a hugely important voice that carries to the most powerful corners of the nation's political landscape.
His new book The Australian Moment is a manifesto on why Australia is uniquely positioned to make the most of this 'Asian Century', and why those who talk down Australia's achievements and potential are in need of a serious reality check.
It doesn't take long for George Megalogenis to get into his stride, either literally or figuratively as we make our way to the ground-floor cafe of the Herald Weekly Tower in Southbank where this most respected of political journalists plies his trade.
Megalogenis occupies a position unique in the Australian media: a 'small L' liberal voice in a national broadsheet that is better known for its conservative tendencies.
Not many authors get a sitting Prime Minister to launch their latest book. When Julia Gillard spoke at the launch of The Australian Moment - in which he dissects 40 years of reforms which he says have made Australia the world's last best hope as a country - the PM enthusiastically supported the author's argument that Australia is not simply a lucky country, but is extremely good at managing its affairs.
Unsurprisingly the PM was rather less happy about Megalogenis' line that the last serious election in Australia was in 1993 and that political leadership in Australia is at one of its lowest ebbs. But then that's very Megalogenis.
How he sits so comfortably on the high-wire of the political divide, eschewing partisanship, articulately delivering his opinions on the most vital issues facing the country today, is key to the immense respect his readers have for him.
Being The Australian newspaper's resident nit-picker is the other part of that equation.
Megalogenis' hallmark as a political journalist is a meticulous attention to explaining data - an almost forensic obsession for facts and figures to support his observations.
For George Megalogenis the devil may be in the detail, but so is the truth. In a wide-ranging interview, we began at the beginning.
Tell me about growing up in Melbourne in the 1970s. You've described yourself as "ridicule's first recruit" in those days. What happened to make you feel that way? "
In 1972 I'd moved schools, this was after year 3. I'd been a pretty contented kid up until that point - and then I started getting into trouble. I got picked on and I didn't know how to deal with it.
I was carrying a sign around my neck saying 'I was a vulnerable young kid, if you want to have a crack, I won't know how to deal with it.'
The wog thing was clearly part of it, and you had to think your way out of that. You could either continue to get beaten up [laughs], or you could just get on with life."
Were you aware of changes in Australian society at the time?
"In the second half of the 1970s the first boat people were arriving and were attracting a lot of attention in the media. I was aware of that as I hit my teens.
In my research for The Australian Moment I looked back at the polling in the 1970s and discovered Greeks were no more popular after the arrival of the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. Anti-migration sentiment in the late 70s was a strong as it was in the 50s. So I was conscious of another outcast."
A hallmark of your journalism is a meticulous analysis of data. Was that attention to detail in your psychological make up from an early age?
"I used to have this strange facility with numbers, so I could recall for instance, in sequence, every run I'd scored batting in cricket for the Saturday morning club side I played for in North Caulfield. This would work until about I was about 80 not out, but when I got to 90 or so I lost track."
What did you want to be when you were a child?
I wanted to be a policeman at first, then I wanted to be a football player. Growing up in Richmond my mother had needed to give me a social tool and she gave me the footy team. [Megalogenis has been a committed Tigers fan ever since]. "At some point in my middle teens it occurred to me I wanted to be a journalist and I didn't let go of that thought.
In those days I remember Neos Kosmos being in the house, alongside the Melbourne Sun and the Melbourne Herald. There was always a newspaper on the kitchen table. Maybe that's one of the reasons I ended up in newspapers."
Can you remember the first time you became consciously aware of a political event or personality?
"My parents weren't really political, but by 1972 Gough Whitlam was the buzz. There had been a change of government after 23 years. Even as a young kid you couldn't help but notice.
I was eight and I remember Gough coming to power in the '72 election. One memory I have is from 1975 - Liberal kids teasing the Labor kids on the day of the Dismissal - November 11. Of course I wasn't involved. It was one of those fights I could stay out of, because it wasn't about me.
I was always a very nervy kid. Every time I had to stand up in class I'd get a dizzy spell. This would happen in primary and early high school. I went to Melbourne High in 1978 and I thought the first thing I need to do is to get into debating to cure this thing, otherwise it's going to stay with me and I found debating was fun."
After highschool Megalogenis attended Melbourne University graduating with a degree in Economics and Politics - which he describes as "a means to an end" - the goal always being journalism.
What was your first story with a byline?
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