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Looking back over 2023, Albanese lost his sheen, two global conflicts raged, the Voice was defeated and a rabble-rousing punk-poet and an electrifying prose stylist quietly slipped away. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The year in review

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese reacts to the “No” vote in the Voice referendum.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese reacts to the “No” vote in the Voice referendum.
Credit: David Gray / AFP

An adviser to the prime minister recently told me of the public’s deep fondness for Anthony Albanese in his first year, a fondness they’d not inferred from polling but had seen, firsthand, out there – in tours of factories and schools and local markets. He was greeted like a rock star, they said, and the prime minister enjoyed the adulation but wore his pleasure lightly.

Though they were discussing recent history, it was recalled wistfully, and in the ruins of the Voice – the rock star, it seemed, was less charismatic than his most ardent followers believed.

Despite what the adviser had seen, as a rule – and very sensibly – Australians rarely become enchanted with their leaders. We tend to vote people out, or elect the seemingly stolid, and we don’t fall in love. Albanese wasn’t embraced so much as Morrison was roughly evicted. It’s not complicated: they got tired of the weird and duplicitous prick and tossed the keys to the other bloke. What they weren’t doing was anointing a several-term Labor epoch, nor garlanding Albanese as their charismatic prophet. Labor’s historically modest primary vote of 32 per cent could tell you that, but nonetheless Labor’s confidence flowered immodestly after victory.

And so came the Voice, a function of Albanese’s confidence and the too-giddy support of those around him. Constitutional recognition had been both desired and planned for many years before his election, of course, but it was Albanese’s decision to immediately put it to voters at a referendum, to ignore advice to legislate it first, and to prosecute the case with vibes rather than detail. Advocates for the Voice may content themselves with the belief it was defeated solely by Dutton’s cynicism and its massaging of vast public bigotry – but this would be only half the story.

Political punditry is often just the witless rearrangement of clichés, and it was no surprise to hear endless references to Albanese’s waning “political honeymoon” after declining approval ratings. It’s an irritating phrase, suggesting Australians, like moody teenaged lovers, are in a perpetual state of either enchantment or disenchantment with their leader. But if we have to simplify, I’d suggest the more relevant poles are indifference and contempt.

Dutton was unelectable, they said, but he’s no more unelectable than Abbott – the man whose selection as party leader was welcomed by the previous Labor government with raised champagne flutes.

 

The Labor premiers Mark McGowan, Daniel Andrews and Annastacia Palaszczuk all voluntarily left politics this year, meaning no mainland state leader from the lockdown years is now left in power. The first two cited exhaustion; Palaszczuk seemed resigned to her polling. Each was enduring – the Victorian and Queensland leaders were nine years in their jobs, and Palaszczuk the longest-serving female premier in Australian history.

I mention the lockdowns because in September this year, the prime minister announced an inquiry into how Covid-19 was handled. “Given the loss of life, dislocation, stress and expenditure resulting from the pandemic, we said it would be in the national interest to hold an inquiry into the response,” he said.

But Albanese frustratingly limited the inquiry to merely the Commonwealth’s actions – that is, those of the previous Morrison government. The inquiry would preclude any consideration of “actions taken unilaterally by state and territory governments”.

This was an absurd limitation, and rightly scorned: the Commonwealth had exercised (or neglected to exercise) significant powers, of course, but the states were in the driver’s seat.

After public criticism, the wording on the inquiry’s website was quietly altered – it would now consider the use of evidence regarding “interventions, such as lockdowns, in different jurisdictions across Australia”. The inquiry’s co-chair, Robyn Kruk, told Guardian Australia last month, “I smile when people say the terms of reference are not broad. It is incredibly broad, an incredibly complex jigsaw, and it’s focused on the interface between the states and the Commonwealth and community partners … We’ve got to ensure this process looks at the incident as a whole.”

Which was comforting, even if the broadening of the inquiry’s scope occurred belatedly and rather mysteriously, and there will be no public hearings, no state leaders will be compelled to cooperate and scrutiny of their policies remains qualified. Notwithstanding sympathy for premiers, who were acting under great pressure and with uncertain information, the pandemic compelled extraordinary uses of power, while exposing various social and institutional fault lines. There are profound lessons to be learnt from those years.

The influential, near-mythic statesman and scholar Henry Kissinger died this year aged 100. He left his Harvard professorship in 1969 to join Richard Nixon’s White House as the United States president’s national security adviser and, later and simultaneously, as his secretary of state.

Kissinger was a theoretician of power, but also a cunning practitioner and, even after leaving the US State Department in 1977, he found the ear of several more presidents. He was regarded for his realpolitik, his insistence on the balancing of global powers and his clarity on the vital interests of his country. Central to this are basic Hobbesian principles: that injustice is preferable to disorder – the latter being a condition for the bloodiest conflagrations – and relatedly, that order is more important than freedom, because without it there can be little guarantee of personal liberty. Kissinger and his Jewish family fled Germany in 1938, having witnessed the disorder that gave rise to Hitler and which, in turn, the Führer demonically magnified.

I can admire these principles, especially in a world where the intoxication of self-righteousness prevails. But I reject the generous myth of Kissinger as a sober strategist, untouched by moral vanities, which contrasted him so nobly with the misadventures of America’s neo-cons after the September 11 attacks.

Kissinger’s own global games were bloody, contradictory and contemptuous of democratic accountability. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his role in negotiating the end of the Vietnam War – but his role in Nixon’s sabotage of the 1968 Paris peace talks likely prolonged it.

Kissinger encouraged the secretive and illegal bombing of Cambodia, whose border with Vietnam was usefully porous to the Viet Cong. The carpet-bombing was indiscriminate, killing tens of thousands and, in the disorder that followed, helped ratify the popularity of the emerging, genocidal Khmer Rouge. Neither Kissinger nor the US more broadly was wholly responsible for the rise of the group, which would murder more than a million of its people over four years. But nor did Kissinger ever accept his influence.

Curiously, given his own secretive games in government – which included tapping the phones of his own staff to determine the source of leaks on Cambodia – Kissinger believed the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. With some qualification, Kissinger approved of the Iraq War.

He was also, again with qualification, supportive of NATO’s expansion in the 1990s, which proved disastrously provocative to an already humiliated and paranoid Russia. Today, the West’s arrogant treatment of the country after the dissolution of the Soviet empire is being repaid. It was George Kennan – American Cold War statesman and designer of his country’s policy of Soviet containment – who saw the danger of NATO’s expansion to the borders of Russia, and predicted its adverse reaction. “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,” Kennan said in 1998. “It is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.”

The West has long underestimated Russian capacity and ambition. For the war’s duration, much of the popular Western reporting has fixated upon the singular villainy of Vladimir Putin, the noble defiance of Volodymyr Zelensky and the heroic resistance of the Ukrainians. But Putin also functions like a modern, if frustrated, tsar, projecting power in the hope of reclaiming past glories and land. He has long nursed the humiliations of the 1990s, and the invasion of Ukraine was all but promised, several times, in major speeches. The stories we have told ourselves about Russia are that its structures are Potemkin – revealed to be hollow when under strain. That its military’s leadership is corrupt and its equipment outdated. That its economy will falter beneath the weight of international sanctions. That its people, while still fearfully obedient, may revolt if and when there are bread lines.

Nearly two years in, these stories are told with less conviction. The reality appears to be a meat grinder of indefinite attritional warfare. And Russia remains equipped – in terms of both men and the fanatical commitment to sacrifice them.

On October 7, Hamas unleashed terror upon southern Israel, butchering about 1200 people. It was highly planned and barbaric and, in response, as Hamas knew it would, Israel unleashed hell. By some estimates, 20,000 Palestinians have since been killed, with millions displaced, neighbourhoods have been destroyed, infectious diseases run rampant and the supply of water and electricity has been cut or is parlous.

Israel’s tolerance for civilian deaths seems chillingly unflinching and Hamas has shamelessly embedded itself within civil infrastructure. In this deathly entanglement, I cannot see the moral clarity so many demand others to see. Nor can I see how Israel’s objective of eliminating Hamas is achievable. There are echoes with the 2006 war against Hezbollah, prosecuted with the same goal but ending in futility.

I can see, however, the fateful radicalisation of orphaned Gazan children. And I can see more blood. So too the US, whose support for Israel is less avid now and which, alongside the United Nations and much of Europe, has insisted Israel limit “indiscriminate” bombing. To protect civilians was “a moral duty and a strategic imperative” the US defence secretary said this week.

 

While lying in bed the other night, my four-year-old daughter asked me where our brain was and if that was “where we have thoughts”. She asked this as casually as if inquiring about dinner or the length of a car trip, and I almost wept. The sweet sum of her inquiry’s innocence and casual profundity was intolerable to me. Intolerable because, once again, I was reminded that ever since she was born I’ve worn my nervous system on the outside. My love hurts.

That external system was overwhelmed by Charlotte Wells’s feature film debut, Aftersun, released this year to Australian cinemas. A slow, near-plotless film about a summer vacation between a young father and his 11-year-old daughter, Aftersun is exquisitely subtle and soulful. It’s also very adult: here, drama is found watching Sophie take the stage for karaoke, certain her father will join her. But he doesn’t. Her stoic completion of the song, while stunned by her father’s abandonment and the fear of embarrassment, is one of the most moving and heroically artless scenes I’ve watched in years.

What does love look like? Not much. A game of cards beside a pool. The patient application of sunscreen. Lame jokes and easy silence. Gracefully disguising your pain and saying “yes” to your daughter. It’s not much to look at, dramatically, but it’s unmistakably real. With unusual subtlety, we sense Sophie’s clumsy dance upon the edge of adolescence – her innocence and burgeoning worldliness joined in awkward transition – as we sense the depths of the father’s pain, even if its origins and scale are mysterious. In Aftersun, there’s enormous power to the things not said, the things not seen.

The English writer Martin Amis, who died this year at 73, was rarely subtle – except while dying. He succumbed to oesophageal cancer, the same thing that killed his great friend Christopher Hitchens 12 years earlier. After his diagnosis, Hitchens embarked on something like a death tour. Amis did not. It seems he told no one but intimates, and the first the public heard of his illness came with the news of his passing.

Amis’s spell between roughly 1980 and 2000 – across novels, short stories, memoir, criticism, profiles and casual journalism – remains for me one of the most impressive and electrifying periods of any modern writer. There’s wit and musicality and seriousness, whether he’s interviewing an ailing Truman Capote at his bedside, reporting on Atlanta’s serial killer of children or contemplating The Bomb.

He withheld little. Unlike Aftersun, say, or the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, where subtlety reigns and their great power derives from the things not said or acknowledged, Amis worshipped the supreme articulacy and highly charged riffage of Saul Bellow. He was a show-off committed to richness and vivacity, and if other writers have stirred me more, few have given me as much pleasure. “An awful lot of modern writing seems to me to be a depressed use of language,” he said. “Once, I called it ‘vow-of-poverty prose’. No, give me the king in his countinghouse.”

The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan also passed away this year, aged 65. The Irishman who was born in England, the punk who played Celtic folk, a legend whose genius flowered for just three years. It was a decent innings for a man who’d aggressively romanticised drink and self-degradation, and who’d spent much of his final decade in a wheelchair watching telly. “Self-abuse, or whatever you wanna call it, is also incredibly creative,” he said in 1990, which is true as far as it goes, but it’s also true MacGowan had long become a sullen ghost, acerbic and immobile, a man whose last album was released in the previous century.

He’d paid extravagant taxes to his muse, but he also gave us two of the most beautiful songs I know: “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and “A Rainy Night in Soho”.

Barry Humphries died, aged 89. Like the British actor Steve Coogan, Humphries was responsible for a comedically grotesque character who became widely beloved. And both were addicts. “The problem with all my excesses is that, unlike those people who reach rock bottom with drugs, I could still function,” Coogan wrote in his 2015 memoir. “Being a functioning addict is a curse; my life didn’t ever quite fall apart.”

But Humphries did find his knee-scraping nadir when, in 1970, he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly in his home town of Melbourne. It was a pivotal moment. He narrowly avoided prison, was subject to rehab, and soon ended a decade of alcoholism. Unlike Coogan, he’d been chastened into disavowal, and Humphries would maintain his sobriety to the end – a source of great pride, his son Oscar testified at his recent state funeral.

Humphries’ was an unlikely and remarkable career. From obscure dadaist provocateur to globally revered wit, he lived long enough to find the praise of Manning Clark and the contempt of Hannah Gadsby. His final years were coloured by the consequences of rather unwitty and intemperate remarks about trans people, which prompted the Melbourne International Comedy Festival to remove his name from its highest honour.

 

Wally, a six-foot emotional support alligator, was denied entry to the Phillies’ ballpark, while the streets of a Portuguese town were flooded with more than two million litres of red wine after the tanks of a local distillery burst. The mayor of New York City declared war on rats, The Beatles released a new single, and powerful floodlights used during a film shoot melted the components of several windows of an Airbus A321 – something that was only discovered mid-flight the next day, after passengers complained that things seemed much colder and noisier than usual.

Elon Musk kept proselytising the colonisation of Mars, while scientists from several US institutions released their modelling about the sustainability of such a colony, finding that “contrary to other literature … the minimum number of people with all personality types that can lead to a sustainable settlement is in the tens and not hundreds”.

Sydney sailor Tim Shaddock and his dog were rescued by a Mexican tuna boat in the middle of the Pacific after drifting for three months in a damaged boat with no electronics. The two survived on rain water and raw fish. Or, so we thought. It turned out Shaddock did have communications, was in daily contact with his sister, and his boat’s mast and sail seemed perfectly fine for navigating back to land. We were left with something less miraculous but much more mysterious.

And in a November speech, Donald Trump pledged to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country”. In an earlier interview he said immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country”. He’s repeated the line since.

Trump remains the overwhelming favourite to secure the Republican presidential nomination – and the bookies’ favourite to reclaim the presidency next year. Pending, that is, his likely appeal to the US Supreme Court of a historic ruling by a Colorado judge this week to remove Trump from the state’s presidential ballot, under laws that bar an insurrectionist from holding office.

 

And so, what to make of all this? I could say that we, the media, have learnt nothing from the election of Trump in 2016 – that moment when, in earnest editorials, we said this was our knee-scraping nadir. I could say the internet has long fractured us, that it was not the elegantly liberating force promised two decades ago, and we’re now all well advanced in our social cannibalism and violently eroded attentions. I could say Trump is coming back, and may God help us, and that the breathless op-eds haven’t helped.

I could say all that – but it would be old news and boring, right? And so instead I’ll leave you with Khaled Khalifa, the great Syrian novelist who died this year aged 59, who both adored and mourned his country, and whose regime had banned his books and stalked him in the streets. “Surrendering to one’s memories is the best way of escaping the wounds they preserve; constant repetition robs them of their brilliance and sanctity.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "Sometimes crawling, sometimes walking".

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