2019: The year that was
How good’s Australia? Pretty bloody good, unless it’s burning or parched or you’re in aged care. Or if you’re Indigenous, or a child in offshore detention, or a journalist investigating war crimes. Or if you’re casually employed, wanting to buy your first home, or trying to police child exploitation and being thwarted by a serially negligent bank.
How good’s Australia? Pretty bloody good, unless you’re contemplating our faith in political leadership. “Satisfaction with democracy is at its lowest level since the constitutional crisis of the 1970s,” the Australian National University’s election study declared this month. “Trust in government has reached its lowest level on record, with just 25 per cent believing people in government can be trusted.”
In which case, the prime minister’s complacency might seem errant and smug.
A decade ago, Elke Weber, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, said the abstract threats of climate change cannot be comprehended by the primal part of our brain, which alerts us to danger but has evolved to discern only the most immediate and observable concerns. The threats associated with climate change, Weber said, “are psychologically removed in space and time. So cognitively, we know something needs to be done about climate change, but we don’t have that emotional alarm bell going off.”
This year, though, that bell was ringing loudly. When bushfires are more intense, more regular, and the window for safe burn-offs is more narrow, climate change is no longer a threat that’s removed in space and time.
The deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, is smart enough to know that concern about climate change is not limited to inner-city Greens voters, nor does it qualify someone as a “raving lunatic”, as he suggested in November. But this year, McCormack said: “We’ve had fires in Australia since time began.”
No one is saying otherwise. What is being said, and with decades of evidence, is simple: that man-made climate change is increasing the length and severity of our fire season.
McCormack – and many others – were aggrieved this year by the temerity of some to talk about climate change while the fires raged. The aggravation sounded a lot like America’s National Rifle Association’s, specifically its serial objection to anyone who demands gun reform after yet another massacre. “Now is not the time,” they always say. “These reformists are insensitive opportunists.”
But one might ask: When is the time? And one might answer: It’s gone. Like the United States’ guns – of which there are now more than people, with many firearms circulating in black markets – global warming required a global response decades ago. In lieu of that immensely complicated and unlikely achievement we have had spin and hedges and stopgaps and senate motions – as well as outright denial, and a kryptonite-like effect on leaders.
The civil obstructions of Extinction Rebellion activists have fuelled the culture wars, and given the Coalition a cover for vilifying anyone terrified about climate change. But, really, these wars are a distraction from the fact that few leaders – those who’ve accepted the scientific consensus anyway, and there are plenty who haven’t – actually believe climate change can be meaningfully redressed anymore, and certainly not by us, a middle power dependent on Chinese trade. A profound resignation masquerades as common sense and a victory for the quiet Australian. But the fires will continue, and so too the intergenerational bitterness.
It was the year of the miracle election. Yet Scott Morrison was not Jesus Christ but a gifted magician – a man who won a game by making invisible his party’s extraordinary ineptitude, in part by cunningly inflaming the public’s distrust of Bill Shorten. It was the old ad man’s greatest marketing triumph, and it conferred an enormous prize.
Morrison proved more cunning than the rest. Than Turnbull, Dutton and all of the Labor Party. But cunning alone won’t elevate us, and for a long time now we’ve suffered from people more gifted at assuming power than acquitting it. With Morrison, we very likely have our shallowest leader in my lifetime – a period stretching back to Malcolm Fraser – and his recent sustained silence during the New South Wales fires was almost eerie.
In September, Morrison enjoyed a state dinner with United States President Donald Trump, before snubbing the United Nations’ Climate Change Summit. Greta Thunberg, Time’s Person of the Year, was there and said: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
Morrison responded: “I like [my children] to make up their own mind but I also like to give them reassurance because the worst thing I would impose on any child is needless anxiety. They’ve got enough things to be anxious about. I always like kids to be kids.”
You don’t have to be a parent to acknowledge the tenderness in the prime minister’s remarks: They’ve got enough things to be anxious about. The cruelties of peer pressure, for example, or becoming orphaned when your ship is smashed upon the rocks of Christmas Island. In 2010, when this happened to a nine-year-old Iranian boy, Scott Morrison, as shadow Immigration minister, sought to alleviate the boy’s anxiety by attacking the Gillard government’s decision to fly him to Sydney for his father’s burial. The bodies of his mother and brother weren’t recovered.
Earlier this month, we had the ultimate expression of Morrison’s concern about children: the repeal of medevac. Consider how sharply the government defined itself this year by the repeal. Now consider its practical importance. Regardless of your position, the issue is – practically, if not ethically – of second-order importance: the medevac law applied to just 600 people. The government was interested in symbolic triumph; now it’s been achieved, the country is fundamentally unchanged – that is, if we ignore the self-harm we’ve committed to our soul by making it harder for a few dozen very sick children to access proper medical care. But such is the moronic gravity of the culture wars.
For a long time, concerns about China have been dismissed as the paranoid confections of racists. Or, if you’re Paul Keating, you may dismiss such criticism as “pious belchings” – a peculiar way to describe the condemnation of modern gulags.
The endurance of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters has been remarkable this year, even if it has been allowed in part by Chinese restraint and a reluctance to commit another Tiananmen Square-like massacre before the world’s cameras. “Last weekend, our optimism was shattered as we watched in horror the unyielding forces of repression brutally killing the vision of youth,” then prime minister Bob Hawke said in his famous, tearful speech of 1989. “Unarmed young men and women were sprayed with bullets and crushed by tanks.”
Hawke died on the eve of this year’s federal election, offering Bill Shorten what seemed like an elegiac glow to his assumed victory. On election day, obituaries celebrated Hawke as exemplifying a kind of charming, authentic and effective leadership our political class is now incapable of creating, before the eulogies yielded to coverage of Shorten’s loss.
This month, in an affidavit first reported by The New Daily, Hawke’s younger daughter, Rosslyn Dillon, alleged that her father asked her to remain quiet about her being repeatedly raped by his friend, the late Labor minister Bill Landeryou. “She did tell people at the time,” Dillon’s sister, Sue Pieters-Hawke, said. “I believe there was a supportive response but it didn’t involve using the legal system.”
Elsewhere, Boris Johnson, the unprincipled leader of an unsettled and unpopular British government, won a triumphant majority, which included a swath of northern seats that had been glued to Labour for a century. Reconciling this will now be the work of the Labour Party, while accepting that a profound electoral realignment has occurred. History will not be kind to Jeremy Corbyn’s persistence.
Nor will it treat kindly the US Republican Party, which has unwaveringly supported Donald Trump during this year’s scandalous impeachment hearings, and will now almost certainly block his conviction in the senate. Trump has been more egregiously crooked than Nixon, but he’ll beat dismissal and is odds-on favourite to win another term in November.
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” so Dr Christine Blasey Ford famously testified last year before the US senate, as she detailed her allegation that the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her while they were in high school.
This year, a few awful details were also indelible in the hippocampus of Virginia Roberts Giuffre, the Australian woman who alleges she was forced to have sex with Prince Andrew three times when she was 17, and was sexually trafficked by the late billionaire and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Perhaps you’ve seen clips of Prince Andrew denying the allegations in a recent BBC interview, but they don’t properly reflect the bizarre sum. To watch the full hour is like watching a guilty child – one who has assumed an unctuous baritone to suggest his credibility – wriggle under the patient questioning of an adult.
As far as institutional mystification goes, though, the British royal family is bettered by the Catholic Church. In March this year, George Pell was sentenced to six years’ jail for the sexual abuse of two choirboys in the 1990s. His conviction was upheld in the Supreme Court of Victoria after appeal, but the High Court has now granted leave to hear another challenge. The Vatican has reserved comment – as well as its defrocking of Pell, who remains a cardinal – until his legal opportunities are exhausted.
This month, the former commissioner of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Justice Peter McClellan, spoke publicly for the first time since he submitted his final report to the federal government two years ago. “I cannot comprehend how any person, much less one with qualifications in theology … could consider the rape of a child to be a moral failure but not a crime.”
As is now obvious – it’s been so for years – Facebook is history’s largest surveillance operation. The platform is easily manipulated, shares inflammatory falsehoods, broadcasts massacres, undermines media companies, exploits its market dominance, deceitfully harvests personal data – but is so large that it has eluded any meaningful regulation. “Why do Facebook’s laws of the jungle trump Australia’s laws of the land?” Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese asked this month, while describing his own subjection to fake news. Rana Foroohar, author of this year’s Don’t Be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech, argues it’s partly because the social network is now too big to fail.
In July, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) released what might be the world’s most thorough inquiry into big tech and its regulation – a 623-page report, containing 23 recommendations to government. At the report’s launch, the ACCC head, Rod Sims, was critical of Facebook’s and Google’s evasion of responsibility. This month, Scott Morrison promised to implement many of the recommendations, including a dedicated investigative unit within the ACCC, and a possible strengthening of the Privacy Act. In this, at least, Australia is leading the world.
In Trick Mirror, a much-discussed essay collection published this year, New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino wrote: “On the internet, a highly functional person is one who can promise everything to an indefinitely increasing audience at all times.” To live is to perform, Tolentino reminds us, but the internet accelerates and magnifies our performances, and now “our world – digitally mediated, utterly consumed by capitalism – makes communication about morality very easy but makes actual moral living very hard”.
As such, the internet is now largely a “feverish, electric, unlivable hell”, Tolentino says. It’s curious how often you read jokes online about how awful the online world is. The pose is one of sly knowingness. And it’s necessary because, on Twitter, what’s much worse than surrendering your time, spirit and selfhood to an addictive vortex is being thought to be someone without an ironic awareness of these risks. Perhaps the pose was a correction to the glib optimism of early social-media evangelists? Either way, there are two major reckonings to be had with big tech – one by the state and another by the individual.
When I learnt of Clive James’s death last month, I sentimentally resumed his series of memoirs. The first book in the series, Unreliable Memoirs (1980), greatly enhanced James’s fame by effervescently describing his Sydney childhood with near-perfect sentences, and gifting us the literary equivalent of Basil Fawlty thrashing his dud Austin: the tale of the dunny man. It’s a wonderful book.
But the series offers diminishing returns. Forty pages into May Week Was in June, the third volume, there casually appears, among the ceaseless, ingratiating crackle of one-liners, a reference to a spate of student suicides at Cambridge. It’s jarring, but more jarring is that the deaths don’t hold James’s interest as much as, well, anything else – booze, say, or the subjects of his lusty gaze. He’s done with it in a few sentences, before resuming his repartee. James could be “monstrously glib”, wrote the critic Christopher Tayler. And he could.
But James was also greatly entertaining – glibness an occasional symptom. He was an original: an aphorist, a poet, a novelist, an essayist, a critic, a comic, a talk show host and a man charmingly, inveterately besotted with life.
James – and his brilliantly dissident peer Les Murray, dead this year at 80 – would likely have agreed with comments made by Barack Obama in October, when he dropped the customary reticence of his post-presidency to criticise “woke culture”. “I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgemental as possible about other people,’ ” the former US president said. “You should get over that quickly.”
There was no blunt sanctimony in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, one of the best films of the year. “Bong has some ideas in Parasite, but the movie’s greatness isn’t a matter of his apparent ethics or ethos,” The New York Times wrote, “… but of how he delivers truths, often perversely and without an iota of self-serving cant.”
You can easily plot Steve Smith’s previous 18 months as a dramatic arc: eminence, scandal, exile, triumphant return. To add some meat to it, we can say the scandal of Cape Town was compounded by comic naivety and evasiveness, his exile punctuated by a weird and tactless TV commercial, and his return all the more triumphant for his defiance of English hostility – whether the booing of crowds, or the venom of Jofra Archer.
Having played no first-class cricket for a year, Smith scored 140-plus in his first two innings back – which just happened to be in the Ashes, away from home, against talented bowlers and while playing the role of pantomime villain.
Untouched by scandal was Ash Barty, who became the first Australian to win the French Open since 1973 and ended the calendar year as the world’s top-ranked female player – this at the age of 23, and after she had once abandoned the sport for cricket.
Acknowledging the talent of Margaret Court was a more delicate matter for Tennis Australia, which this year began preparing for the 50th anniversary of her 1970 grand slam – the last time an Australian won all four major tournaments in the same year. Barty is just one of many on the pro circuit to have criticised Court’s opposition to homosexuality and same-sex marriage; Court has likened queer advocacy to Hitler’s demagogy.
In the end, an agreement was reached: Tennis Australia would acknowledge Court’s historic achievement and invite her as a special guest at the 2020 Australian Open, while reserving their right to publicly oppose her beliefs, “which have demeaned and hurt many in our community over a number of years”.
Elsewhere, Rugby Australia finally, and expensively, settled out of court with Israel Folau.
This year, Jack Riewoldt’s 250th game opened the AFL season before 85,000 people – just days after he became a father. Richmond won comfortably. But after the final siren, when he was obliged to spew bromides, something interesting happened. Subtly, some humanity escaped. Jack wasn’t triumphant; he wasn’t transcribing glory into slabs of cliché and false modesty.
“It’s been an emotionally draining week,” he said. That’s hardly profound – it’s hardly anything at all – but I sensed, compressed within that laconic confession, all the terror and doubt and disbelief and love and exhilaration and vertiginous sense of responsibility that attends the birth of your first child.
He didn’t say it was the best week of his life, or praise God, or dedicate the victory to his daughter, or otherwise make any of the grating, ostentatious declarations of gratitude or contentment that athletes seem helpless from making in such circumstances. Which seemed right. It was a big week for Jack, but its bigness was exhausting. And private.
I wrote those words back in March, after the game and when my daughter was six weeks old. Now, tearfully, I’m writing about another father I’ve never met: Joe Hammond. Last year, the British playwright, recently condemned to the swift, profound debilitations of motor neurone disease, wrote about writing 33 cards for his two young sons – one for each of their birthdays until they turned 21. The story went viral.
This week, The Guardian published Hammond’s final column a fortnight after his death. It was written with the help of software that tracks the pupil’s movement, while his body was intricately sustained by tubes, while he listened to his family. “In the room next door, as I write, I can hear Jimmy, my two-year-old son, offering to take passengers on a bus ride to various destinations. It’s half-term and Tom, my seven-year-old, has wandered out into the garden. He’s smiling, looking back at the house, as he points out a squirrel to someone standing inside.”
For all the world’s tumult this year, Hammond’s words have gently trained my eyes much closer to home.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 21, 2019 as "Home and astray". Subscribe here.