The tumult and turbulence of 2014

Madonna King sums up the news headlines of the year – dominated by acts of terrorism and local political chaos. Cartoon by David Pope.

The deaths of two colossal statesmen – Nelson Mandela and Gough Whitlam – bookended the past 12 months, reminding us of the magnificent legacy that big policy and even bigger vision can author. But their passing – on December 5 last year and October 21 this year – also served as a buttress to a time of turmoil, coloured by acts of terrorism, which found a new bar abroad, and fringe politics, which found a new audience at home.

Internationally, the tumult of ISIS and its new kind of savagery brought beheadings into our lounge rooms and into the conversations we have with our children, making a lie of US President Barack Obama’s declaration last year that “perpetual war footing’’ had ended.

Snatching control of Iraq’s second city, Mosul, the murderous jihadists taunted the Western world, challenging the readiness and the resolve of both the United States and its allies, including Australia.

It raised the talkback barometer once they went ahead with their barbaric threats and beheaded two American journalists, two British aid workers, several Lebanese soldiers and goodness only knows how many Syrian soldiers.

With Australia’s terror threat ramped up to high in September, the menace didn’t need to come closer to home. But it did, when days later police acted on alleged intelligence that random beheadings were being planned in both Sydney and Brisbane.

The suite of tendentious and unprecedented anti terrorism laws authored by the Abbott government has failed to deliver any unanimity on a way forward, as 2014 closes with fighting, including our own, continuing off-shore, and spot fires of home-grown terrorism continuing to be found here.

The turbulence of 2014 beyond our shores hasn’t started or stopped with ISIS, though. Russia annexing part of Ukraine in March, the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian girls in April, the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in July, and the deadly challenge presented by the Ebola virus have been monthly reminders of the precariousness of certainty.

It was the baby faces of the Maslin children – Mo, aged 12, Evie, aged 10 and Otis, aged 8 – who were among the 298 passengers (including 28 Australians) aboard MH17 that tore at our souls.

The unlikely-as-hell fact that it came after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH350 from the skies a few months earlier in March – and our ongoing inability to locate it – only served to rattle the surety of our everyday lives.

It was those international events, and how we responded, that propelled a new candidate into the line-up of those being viewed as future Liberal Party leaders. The stunning performance of the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, elbowed out treasurer Joe Hockey, whose annus horribilis continues, and gave focus to the ambition of immigration minister Scott Morrison, who has kept his promise and kept the boats away.

And while the job of prime minister and shirtfronter Tony Abbott is as sure as it can be – at least this week – that unpredictability on the international front was joined by the unsettling performances of our own elected representatives.

Queensland’s premier, Campbell Newman, has gone from the nation’s most popular Liberal to perhaps its most despised. In NSW, the premier Barry O’Farrell quit over a $3000 bottle of wine and, at the time of writing, no-one could really tell what was going on in Victoria.

It was the lure of stability that sent the Gillard government packing and granted Abbott a taste of the top office. But 2014 has shown it all proved to be a costly mirage. Clive Palmer – the latest in a long, eccentric tradition from Queensland, which also brought to the political stage Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and One Nation’s Pauline Hanson – ensured he used his weight to tip the balance to chaos at every opportunity. (Just a rider here: Clive’s Tasmanian senator, Jacqui Lambie, is trying to stage her own lunacy coup, which could see Tasmania steal Queensland’s crown.)

Cartoon by David Pope

While designer Catherine Martin and actress Cate Blanchett were crowned with Oscars in March, it was a physical brawl between billionaire gaming mogul James Packer and Nine Entertainment Group head David Gyngell that stole the entertainment credits for 2014.

But the gong for entertainment with purpose goes to the ALS ice-bucket challenge to raise awareness of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [Lou Gehrig’s disease]. It proved a phenomenal viral marketing hit, with the New York Times reporting an extra US$42 million (around A$48.6 million) was donated to the ALS Association in July and August.

In the courtroom, any shred of certainty was thrown out with the defence arguments as Rolf Harris joined former Hey Dad! star Robert Hughes in being jailed over child sex charges, 2012 Olympic hero Oscar Pistorius was found guilty of culpable homicide, and two former prime ministers, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, fronted separate royal commissions questioning their behaviour.

While Schapelle Corby tasted freedom in Bali for the first time in February, dreadful last chapters were penned in courts across Australia, particularly in Queensland where Brett Cowan, who killed schoolboy Daniel Morcombe, was finally locked away for a long, long time. It won’t be quite long enough for most of us.

But in June the sentencing of Australian journalist Peter Greste in Egypt – to seven years’ jail on a conviction of aiding a terrorist organisation – showed courts will never get it all right. Let’s vow to keep him and his family top of mind as his January 1 appeal date looms.

There have been dozens of other big stories, too. From the death of Wayne Goss at just 63 and the end of car production at home, to the youngest-ever Nobel Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai making headlines abroad. But the overarching theme of 2014 has been the wake-up call that nothing lasts forever. The passing of Robin Williams, one of the funniest men on earth, rammed that point home in August. It also provided a timely reminder of the herculean challenge presented by mental illness.

Despite the brutality of our times, Nelson Mandela and Gough Whitlam lived long lives, brimming with achievement. Perhaps it’s worth moving into 2015 focusing not on the unpredictability of the time in which we live, but in the knowledge that it is possible to rise above the din and make a genuine difference.

Madonna King is an award-winning journalist, commentator and author, whose features appear in the Good Weekend magazine in The Sydney Morning Herald. Her fifth book, a biography of federal treasurer Joe Hockey, was released this year