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In a year of extraordinary upsets, an unlikely candidate triumphed, detention remained a scourge and the world lost a wealth of talents. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

2016: the year in review

The last time I was in Washington, DC was for Barack Obama’s first inauguration. It was an earnest pilgrimage. I was enthralled with America’s letters – Lincoln’s speeches, Grant’s memoirs, John and Abigail’s correspondence – and I thought with sickly sincerity that the letters of the president-elect might find room among them. “Words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every colour and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States,” Obama said in his famous Philadelphia address in 2008. “What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience, and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”

Pilgrims seemed to have doubled the size of the nation’s capital. On downtown corners, street vendors sold unofficial memorabilia from mats on the footpath. Alongside the National Mall ran a mile of TV news vans. From the doors of the National Archives a line of people snaked around the block. The Lincoln Memorial was jammed, its narrow gift shop overwhelmed, but from its marble stairs, from the spot that Martin Luther King Jr  declared his dream, you could look eastwards over the whole mall, across the Reflecting Pool and the distressed lawn, past the pilgrims exhaling frigid air, down to the giant obelisk of the Washington Monument, and you could think… Well, certainly not that the letters of Obama’s successor would include “Grab them by the pussy” and “My fingers are long and beautiful, as … are various other parts of my body”.

The year before Obama’s victory, Kevin Rudd entered The Lodge promising his own fresh Camelot. Daesh didn’t exist – at least not in its current form – and the Syrian war was still two years away. Now Obama’s legacy is haunted by Trump; Rudd is ignominiously consigned to history. 

Since then, we have had four prime ministers, each incapable of controlling either themselves or their party. In December last year, not long after Turnbull’s ascension, I wrote that it was unlikely he could acquiesce with his party’s spurned and hard line. We have had a year of proof, and a repudiation of Turnbull’s promise of bold and thoughtful leadership. When Turnbull made his pitch for prime minister, he pointed to Abbott’s sloganeering and grim succession of polls. This year, Turnbull campaigned with the numbing mantra “jobs and growth” and now dismisses his own destitute polling as a triviality.

While the world unravelled, and Western parts began dismantling longstanding pacts of liberal globalism, Australia still had an extraordinary story to tell: the only country in the world to have experienced 25 years of economic growth. Inflation was low, unemployment remained modest, and via our HECS-HELP system we had an enormous advantage over America in equipping people for new economies, jobs or skills. “It’s more even, it’s more fair,” Paul Keating said of Australia, the night following Trump’s election. “We’ve had a 50 per cent increase in real incomes in the last 20 years; median America has had zero. Zero. We’ve had universal health protection – from the cradle to the grave. We have a retirement income system, with superannuation. We have high participation rates in schools. We don’t shoot our children in schools, and if they were to be shot, we’d take the guns off the people who shot them. The Americans do not do this. This is a better society than the United States.”

Cultural wars

But the future of that society was subsumed by cultural wars in 2016. Arguing about the threat of boat people, the ABC, Safe Schools, 18C, Gillian Triggs – even the secularisation of Christmas – was preferred over a large and coherent reckoning with our place in an imbalanced world. Each of these are worthy of debate – it would be obnoxious and illiberal to demand people abandon their arguments – but the sum was niche rancour, dispiriting and distracting.

Turnbull tried to assert himself by reviving the republic debate, and this month gave a speech that appeared to be as much about prosecuting an argument as it was about restoring the appearance of an uncompromised statesman. But it was a fine speech, filled with a rare quality: detail. “The cause of the Australian Republican Movement is a cause for Australia,” he told the audience at Sydney University. “I am an Australian and proud to say so. Our head of state should be someone who can say the same.”

But just weeks before, Turnbull was far less in control when a significant statement from his energy minister was embarrassingly reversed within 24 hours. It followed public denunciation by his own party. Josh Frydenberg announced that an energy review would be undertaken, one that examined Australia’s climate responsibilities. “We know that there’s been a large number of bodies that have recommended an emissions intensity scheme,” Frydenberg told ABC Radio, “which is effectively a baseline and credit scheme. We’ll look at that.”

Almost immediately, Senator Cory Bernardi was telling anyone who’d listen that it was the “dumbest thing” he’d ever heard. Soon, Frydenberg was denying he’d ever said it. Bernardi seemed pleased. “It was a clear attempt,” he said, “to reintroduce a price on hot air to satisfy the extreme greens and others seduced by the socialist alarmism of anthropogenic climate change.”

For years, climate policy has been subject to extraordinary volatility. There have been promises and retreats. Funding and defunding. The passing and nullification of legislation. Nothing is constant but the political difficulty of accepting man-made warming. Energy experts and industry leaders told me throughout the year that the volatility was, to say the least, undesirable.

If any policy has remained constant, it has been offshore detention. This year, for most asylum seekers and refugees on Manus and Nauru, was the third they had spent in our distant camps. There were more suicides, bashings and sexual assaults, as there was more evidence for the shambolic material and procedural conditions in which they languish. This year saw a dramatic increase in teachers and psychiatrists emerging publicly to speak of what they experienced there. Having reported on this policy for almost three years, at least two things were clear in 2016: that the mental health of those subject to the policy, especially of those on Manus, had sharply deteriorated; and that the frustration felt by many former employees of the camps eclipsed their fear of prosecution, and they came forward. I am grateful they did.

This year, such a person provided The Saturday Paper with the UNHCR’s detailed report on the camps, written after substantial evaluations. The report – which remains unpublished months after it was presented to the government – was scrupulously damning. “Eighty-eight per cent of asylum seekers and refugees assessed were suffering from a depressive or anxiety disorder and/or post-traumatic stress disorder,” the report read. “These are extremely high rates, among the highest recorded of any population in the world, but a predictable outcome of protracted detention… The vast majority of asylum seekers and refugees surveyed were asymptomatic prior to arrival on Manus Island. The observed symptomatology is therefore likely to be directly attributable to the effects of prolonged indefinite mandatory detention.”

But from the start of the year, a settlement deal was being negotiated between the Australian government and the US. It was kept secret, known to few. Applied, the deal will be a brilliant outcome. But it was made before Donald Trump’s election, and is now uncertain. The refugees on Nauru and Manus have learnt to moderate hope, so often has it been thwarted. None could have predicted that their brightest opportunity would as soon be darkened by the surprise election to the American presidency of a reality television star. They will wait and see. There is little else to do.

Detention at home

Detention on our own shores also made headlines this year. A Four Corners investigation broadcast in July, on the mistreatment of youths detained in the Don Dale facility, introduced us to Dylan Voller and triggered a royal commission into youth detention in the Northern Territory that began this month.

Within days, the West Australian coroner released her findings on the death of Ms Dhu in 2014. The evidence was horrendous. Locked in a police cell for unpaid fines, Ms Dhu was slowly, painfully dying of septicaemia. An Indigenous Australian, she was being held in South Hedland, in WA’s Pilbara region. Her husband, held in the adjacent cell, told the coroner he could hear police officers laughing at his wife as she lay in a pool of her own vomit. 

Police themselves testified that they thought she was just “coming off drugs” and feigning illness to hasten her release. One officer said a colleague had whispered into Ms Dhu’s ear, “You’re a fucking junkie, you’re gonna sit this out.” For the first time, CCTV footage of Ms Dhu’s final hours was released and the coroner recommended that imprisonment be scrapped as a legal recourse to unpaid fines. “The behaviour towards her by a number of police officers was unprofessional and inhumane,” the coroner found. “Their behaviour was affected by preconceptions they had formed about her … It is profoundly disturbing to witness the appalling treatment of this young woman at the lock-up.”

Niche rancour

Our government is drifting. Sclerotic and ineffectual. Turnbull’s alleged talents have drowned in disharmony. The legislative agenda in the new parliament was negligible. The quality of our leadership – from both sides – has been delinquent for years. We were promised to be spoken to as adults. There is little evidence of that.

The distraction of the cultural wars hasn’t been helped by the left’s performative virtue. Elements of it, at least. This government is not alone in practising niche rancour – that phrase again. 2016 felt the noisy proclamations of safe spaces and trigger warnings and micro aggressions and cultural appropriation … and the almost studious indifference to class and economics. If this appears a tired litany, it is because much of the left’s arguments this year seemed to merely comprise a regurgitation of a sanctioned glossary.

When confronting those who deny climate change, science is sensibly invoked. Scientific inquiry might also be applied to any number of celebrated causes, but a rump of the left seem determined to ignore biology, behavioural science and psychology in favour of barely masticated critical theory. 

Trigger warnings offer a clarion example. If the discussion was really about respecting trauma – rather than the hypersensitive and illiberal policing of culture – then we might bother to consult the scientific literature. Soldiers, for obvious reasons, are more likely to acquire PTSD than most. Yet the great majority return from a theatre of war without it. Of those who do, about two-thirds respond well to therapy, and that therapy will, more likely than not, involve exposure to the traumatising event. Which is obvious when you consult the clinical criteria of trauma: one of the pillars is avoidance. So the gross contradiction of trigger warnings is obvious: it enshrines avoidance when avoidance is a part of the problem.

This year I spent good time speaking with a number of traumatised people – soldiers, sexual abuse victims, families of murder victims. Many had meaningfully incorporated their trauma into their lives. Many had gripped it and used it constructively. I would love for the most ardent proponents of trigger warnings to meet these people, and then to dictate to them their own boundaries of victimhood and fragility. I’d also love for them to sit down with psychiatric experts. But niche – and unscientific – rancour abounds, and it’s a rancour that appears to confer more personal gratification than social benefit.

Trump will be inaugurated in a few weeks. The European Union falters. Inequality rises. Freelance terrorism continues. The close of 2016 might be time for Western liberals to reconsider their priorities.

Sporting triumph

In a year of extraordinary upsets, the AFL’s Western Bulldogs offered a simple one. The once unfashionable club became premiers from the unlikely position of seventh on the ladder. No team has won the grand final from so low a position. Underdogs in each of their four finals matches, and having suffered a regular season riven by injury, the Doggies delivered a classic preliminary final against Greater Western Sydney before beating, comfortably in the end, the league’s other anointed Sydney club. The team had their first flag in 62 years.

The Bulldogs had an extraordinary season all round. 2016 was the year they became AFL, VFL and women’s premiers, and it was announced that starting in the new year they would help comprise a national women’s league in its inaugural season. It’s been a long time coming. It begins in February.

In the arts

Until this year, the entire discography of A Tribe Called Quest rested in the ’90s, even if their distinctive mix of jazz, politics and irreverence was inspiring thoughtful artists a generation later. In that decade the group released at least two American classics, and its principal MCs, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, offered hip-hop its own Lennon and McCartney – the tension of two friendly rivals, possessed of brilliantly contrasting gifts. Q-Tip was the suave frontman with liquid delivery; Phife the ribald clown who brought the “roughneck business”.

Phife Dawg was also sick. One of his many sobriquets was the Funky Diabetic, and in March this year he died of complications from the disease. He was 45. Just months before, after reconciling with Q-Tip, he recorded his rhymes for Tribe’s first album in almost 20 years. It would also be their last. We Got it From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service is neither an insipid appeal to nostalgia nor clumsy experimentation. It’s a rich, warm and melancholic record – an elegy not just for Phife but their country. “Trump and the SNL hilarity/ Troublesome times kid, no times for comedy/ Blood clot, you doing/ Bullshit you spewing/ As if this country ain’t already ruined.”

We lost Bowie. The news came as a tremendous shock, so well had he publicly concealed his cancer. Two days after the release of Blackstar, he was dead. Bowie was 69 and, like Phife Dawg, offered his final artistic strains from the grave. The wild fame of Bowie long fascinated me. How was it that a man so insistently strange might become so widely adored? The deaths of Prince and Leonard Cohen this year offer us other revered iconoclasts, but Ziggy Stardust seemed to transcend ordinary fame and reside in some weird and rarefied canon in the sky.

Bowie had decadently pursued the possibilities of his talent for half a century. That pursuit was sometimes indulgent and personally destructive, but this chameleonic adventurer was always willing to risk his gifts. To push it forward, as Q-Tip liked to say. The world is immeasurably enriched for it.

Perhaps the only living musician to rival Bowie’s aura, Bob Dylan, won the Nobel prize for literature. It sparked dull and reactionary complaints, which probably only deepened when, for weeks, Dylan refused to publicly acknowledge the award. Depending on your fondness for him, this may have been either tart ingratitude or charming elusiveness. Dylan has long told us that he’s indifferent to our interpretations of him, and so perhaps it was a rejection of the institutional recognition of popular art? Who knows. Dylan has always left us asking.

As it was, Dylan told the Nobel committee that, regretfully, he could not make the award ceremony. He sent an emissary, the esteemed Patti Smith. She sang “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” with an orchestra behind her and Swedish royalty before, and one wondered if this scene would have been anathema to the guy who first made it in the smoky enclaves of Greenwich Village.

Bruce Springsteen once agonised over the gulf that had emerged between the hard-scrabble lives he described in song and the millions of dollars he received for describing them. “A rich man in a poor man’s shirt,” he sang in “Better Days”. I mention his angst and the contrast of Dylan’s origins with the tremulous halls of royalty not to mock them. Their reception is a mark of their talent. Understandably, you might not find interesting the doubts of artists who toiled in and chronicled the margins before finding outlandish acclaim. But the country of their birth is now the place that has installed a genuine political outsider – a billionaire real estate developer – as president. Contradiction is the steady pulse of the US.

Another major literary prize, the Man Booker, was awarded for the first time to an American this year, after the rules for eligibility were slackened in 2014. The African-American satirist Paul Beatty won for The Sellout, a profane fever dream of race in America. In The New York Times, Dwight Garner described it as “the most concussive monologues … of Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle wrapped in a satirical yet surprisingly delicate literary and historical sensibility”.

He is a brilliant writer. As Garner suggests, Beatty’s comic riffs have the felicity and artful rage of the best of Pryor. 

He is quite a rare thing, a satirist who is actually funny. And while the book lacks dramatic propulsion – there is little plot to speak of – he has given a very significant part of himself to write it. “It was a hard book for me to write,” he said this year. “I know it’s hard to read.”

Accepting the award in October, Beatty responded to the cultural appropriation debate that flared so brightly after author Lionel Shriver’s address to the Brisbane Writers Festival. “Anybody can write what they want,” Beatty said. “But people get to say what they want back to you, and that’s not censorship. It’s also important to note that cultural appropriation goes every direction. It’s not about whites appropriating this, it’s about everyone appropriating everything – and thank goodness. I would have absolutely nothing to say if that wasn’t the case.”

A changing world

How do you convincingly write about this year, this moment, this tectonic drift? I have no idea. This piece is not meant to be exhaustive, nor can it be. It is impressionistic. Arbitrary. And now is a good time to remind you, if it needs to be said, that I am as unsure about anything as anyone else. But if there is a theme to this long medley, it is how poorly we listen to each other. How swiftly we assume the righteousness of our positions, how diligently we bow to the conventional wisdom of our narrow spheres of influence. It has not served us well.

In a few weeks, the Washington Mall will be filled with pilgrims marking the inauguration of President Trump. I won’t be there this time, but Obama will be. And he will sit just metres from where his successor is sworn in – a man who popularised the belief that the 44th president had forged his birth certificate.

Obama will watch the passing of his job to a man he never believed would have it. He will sit, calm and inscrutable, gently clasping the hand of Michelle. And he will nod softly as the affirmation is taken, as if to subtly confirm the dignity of American democracy. His nausea will be neatly concealed. And all I can say is that never before have I seen so many diplomats shrug their shoulders when I ask them: What next?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 24, 2016 as "2016: Trump stakes and selected cuts". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.