Pat Sheil reflects on the year in news. It starts and ends in Paris and sadness, with moments of mad, bad and “only in Australia” in between.
The tales of 2015 seem to be wedged between the bookends of two events in Paris, and for all the wrong reasons, yet there are many stories of inspiration, delicious absurdity and sheer weirdness to lighten the gloom.
Yes, the Charlie Hebdo nightmare in January was horrifying, and especially so to those who make a living through emasculating evil with satire – including many readers of this magazine. Cartoonists here received death threats, which had to be taken seriously. It was a scary time and, in many ways, it still is.
But while we take precautions and hope that there will be an end to the madness eventually, we keep going. You can’t not. And hey, there’s been a lot of fun to be had this year.
Remember the Queensland election, on January 31? I hardly can – it was an eon ago – but there was a certain satisfaction to be had in the deep and abiding self-satisfaction of Campbell Newman leading to a most unsatisfying outcome for the chap. Whatever one’s political views, it was a glorious demonstration of hubris being its own reward, and voters north of the Tweed paid out in spades for services rendered.
A week or so later, on the federal front, the Liberal Party room issued a 61-39 amber light warning to another bloke who seemed pretty sure of himself. It came shortly after what historians will probably pinpoint as the ‘‘implosion moment’’ of the Abbott prime ministership – the awarding of a newly minted Aussie knighthood to a doddery foreign duke.
It is interesting to recall the public reaction to this bizarre act. For those who had found the man a national embarrassment from Day One, it gave certainty to their disdain for his intellectual capacity. If he was capable of such a catastrophic misreading of the electorate, what else might he do?
Those who supported him ducked and weaved, shrugged and sighed, and hoped it would all go away. Then there were the monarchists, who now knew that they had backed the right horse all along, and said so loudly, which didn’t help his cause. Having borrowed the phrase ‘‘captain’s pick’’ (from Julia Gillard, of all people), it instantly became shorthand for ‘‘disastrous miscalculation’’.
In the end, reintroducing imperial honours in any shape or form had made Abbott look like a wounded dinosaur from a Menzies wet dream. The Sir Phil the Greek thing was just cherries and icing on top.
Speaking of delusions, on March 12 the National Health and Medical Research Council issued a comprehensive report declaring that homeopathic medicine is no more effective than placebos, and that the whole idea is, and has always been, a harebrained con job. True enough, but it seems like a lot of money was spent establishing that the only thing distilled water has ever cured is thirst.
On March 25, Germanwings flight 9525 was flown into a French mountainside by a depressed co-pilot, who had locked his captain out of the cockpit and decided to end his life – along with those of 143 other people who were on their way home from a Spanish holiday.
Demands were made for better psychological profiling of aviators, when maybe the cheaper solution would have been captains having a spare cockpit key in their pockets. Anyway, since then, most airlines ensure that there are at least two people up the front at any given moment. (This is reassuring, except perhaps for passengers flying home on a Russian jet to St Petersburg after a holiday in Egypt in October, when it clearly didn’t make any difference.)
A few days later there was another crash, at least metaphorically, when the Palmer United Party (PUP) effectively ceased to exist. On April Fool’s Day, Clive Palmer threatened to sue senators Lambie and Lazarus for $9 million for failing to represent the party, breach of promise, and all manner of other things that vexed him sore. I for one have never been able to make much sense of what the PUP actually stood for, except as a megaphone for Clive’s mining and Jurassic Park golf course speculations, and after a while it seemed most of his MPs were having trouble working it out, too.
Anzac Day this year was big – the biggest since the first one on the face of it, and a lot safer to boot. The 100th Gallipoli commemoration was, all in all, handled decorously, with an appropriate appreciation of the ghastliness of war largely overriding the temptation to wallow in vicarious jingoism and mindless flag-waving.
Three days later the Nepal earthquake reminded us that war is merely an irritating rash as far as Nature is concerned. She always wins in the end.
But not before human madness gives mindless destruction its best shot. Not willing to wait for seismic forces to do it for them, ISIS took vandalism to a new level when the town of Palmyra fell in May, executing archaeologists and planting explosives around buildings that had survived two millennia. They’re still busily destroying the joint.
The gay marriage debate reached a pretty pass indeed on May 23, when the PM was confronted with a Catholic bastion, the Irish Republic, voting overwhelmingly in favour of the idea. The circular talk of conscience votes, enforcement of party policies and wildly expensive plebiscites continue to this day.
It just added to the sense of pointlessness that made the government appear to be flailing about in an ideological swamp. Everyone knows it’s going to happen, so why not just get on with it?
In July, Cuba and the USA finally came to terms with the fact that the missile crisis happened a long, long time ago, that perpetuating the Cold War frostiness was pointless, and they finally reopened their embassies. Winners are expected to be US baseball teams, Cuban cigar manufacturers, and jazz fans everywhere.
At about the same time, courtesy of NASA, we were again reminded of the big picture when the Pluto images from the New Horizons probe started coming in, only to be distracted by the Bronwyn Bishop ‘‘choppergate’’ fiasco. That was always going to end in tears, but more importantly, it raised the wider question – when are we going to stop suffixing every scandal, no matter how petty, with the the word ‘‘gate’’?
On September 14, Malcolm Turnbull finally strode to the microphones, and in a tirade designed to burn every bridge behind him, ripped into the prime minister as an unelectable buffoon and a waste of space. It was all or nothing now. Several hours later, the majority of the Liberal Party MPs agreed with him, and a strange chapter of Australian political history closed.
In sport, at the end of May, a disgraced and deeply peculiar Sepp Blatter resigned from the FIFA presidency. Sort of. A bit. Maybe. Australia won one World Cup, and lost the other, and on both occasions the rest of the world had to watch the Anzacs at each other’s throats. The general feeling after the dust settled was that Australian sports fans would have happily swapped the one we won for the one we lost.
But there were no losers on Melbourne Cup day, when Michelle Payne romped home on long-shot Prince of Penzance, and told the 100,000 crowd and massive TV audience that it was about time a sheila claimed the Big One, and that anyone who’d thought it couldn’t be done should now ‘‘go and get stuffed’’. A magic ‘‘only in Australia’’ moment.
Far less uplifting was the treatment of Adam Goodes by yobbos at AFL games. OK, this wasn’t an “only in Australia” moment – racism is everywhere – but it’s never pretty. There are those who claim that it was about him, and not his ancestry, but either way it was ugly and regrettable.
In the media, we saw the passings of Richie Benaud, Mike Gibson and Sam de Brito among others, but I would like to mention the death at 48 of Andrew Hawksley, the editor of the Temora Independent. Like most rural journos, Andrew had to be able to take photos, write copy, lay out the pages, sub, do the captions and headlines, and see the whole thing through to the printer.
I met him several times during Column 8’s various excursions to Temora, and he was a fine fellow whom I’ll miss. But his death brought home to me the fact that with print teetering on the brink, the newsrooms of Australia will need people with Andrew’s skills more than ever. Specialisation is dying – everyone has to do everything now.
For an ageing fart like me, well, I ponder whether I’m willing (or even able) to reinvent myself for all this, or move on. But I do worry that the death of print will see a catastrophic collapse in standards.
I hope I’m wrong, I really do. But right now, it ain’t looking too flash.
Pat Sheil has been the editor of “Column 8” at The Sydney Morning Herald since 2004. Cover image by Cathy Wilcox, originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.