Elections, olympics, disasters, scandals, and losing perhaps the greatest songwriter we’ve ever known: 2016 was a hell of a year, writes The Project’s Tom Whitty. Cartoon above by Alan Moir.
I was under the influence when I agreed to write this. Drunk on flattery, served by the commissioning editor. I was approached, she assured me, due to my proven wit and style, demonstrated by my writing for The Project. Honoured, I accepted the challenge. So, let’s get laughing!
David Bowie’s dead. Perhaps the greatest songwriter we’ve known, Bowie passed away on January 10, just two days after the release of his 25th studio album. Like everything in his life, Bowie curated his death. A production shrouded in secrecy. Many of his friends and peers were unaware he had been battling cancer, and many of his fans initially believed it was a sick rumour. The stars really do look very different today.
In February we learned that Zika was the new Ebola. The World Health Organisation declared the virus, which causes horrific birth defects, a global health emergency. So far 67 countries have reported the disease. Not Australia though, so we’ll file the story on page 12.
March, realising that misery loves company, followed January and February’s lead. On March 22, the so-called Islamic State bombed Brussels, devastating the airport and a metro station in the city. Thirty-two people died, and we were once again reminded that terror remains an inescapable burden of the modern world. We would have been reminded the week before when a bombing in Turkey’s capital killed 34 people, but it had been filed on page 12.
In April, the colons of the richest humans on the planet collectively tightened. Disappointingly, this wasn’t the result of a brilliantly coordinated Guinness World Record attempt. Instead, the colonic contraction was triggered by the leaking of the Panama Papers. About 11.5 million documents revealed decades of tax evasion, fraud, and flouting of international sanctions. It also revealed kleptocracy, which my dictionary reveals is a government with corrupt rulers that exploit the people and natural resources of their territory for their own personal gain. This paragraph reveals that I still use a dictionary, and not a thesaurus.
Fearing it had failed to mine the same depths of misery as its predecessors, April then killed Prince. Perhaps the greatest songwriter we’ve known, the Purple One passed away at his home on April 21 from a drug overdose. Prince had played some of his final shows in Australia earlier in the year.
May was weird. 60 Minutes got into the kidnapping game, and the rest of us got into the finger-wagging business. And thanks to the sheer absurdity of the story, business was booming. Meanwhile, Australia’s largest dairy processor, Murray Goulburn, cut what it had promised to pay dairy farmers for their produce. While our farmers went into debt, our agriculture minister went AWOL. Thankfully, a well-rounded media campaign saw an incredible public response, and supermarket shelves were empty where branded milk once stood. Too many weeks after the dairy crisis began, the government announced a $555 million rescue package, which was really just another loan scheme that many farmers felt failed to address the cause of their concerns.
Also weird was the erasure of any mention of Australia from a UN report on climate change and world heritage sites. It would come to light that our government had requested the redaction due to fears it could harm tourism. Three days later, in a separate report, we learned that a third of the Great Barrier Reef was dying. Surprisingly, in response, environment minister █████████ said, “███████████████████”. He had a point.
May also saw our prime minister call his nearly fatal double dissolution, Philippines elect a sociopath who supports vigilante justice, and the Cincinnati Zoo kill a gorilla after a toddler fell into its enclosure. RIP Harambe.
June started with the worst mass shooting in US history, when a gunman opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. And June ended with the worst mass poll in British history, when the UK voted to leave the European Union. No one liked you, June.
July, on the other hand, started with a federal election and a win (of sorts) for Malcolm Turnbull, though we wouldn’t know it for more than a week. On July 7, NSW Premier Mike Baird took the bold step of banning greyhound racing in the wake of the live-baiting scandal. It was a brave and admirable example of leadership too rarely witnessed in modern politics. July also observed Theresa May, Britain’s second female Prime Minister, be sworn in following David Cameron’s decision to step down in the wake of the Brexit disaster. And the Pokémon Go phenomenon ushered in a new era of gaming, encouraging nerds of all ages to leave their bedrooms where they could stare down at their screens all day and step outside into the real world to stare down at their screens all day.
It really looked like July was the month we’d been waiting for. Then a terrorist in Nice murdered 86 people with a truck and Sonia Kruger said she wanted to stop Muslims from migrating to Australia. Waleed Aly tried to turn it around by saying Sonia isn’t evil, but July was ruined. If we were in any doubt of July’s intentions, it ended with the devastating Four Corners report that exposed the torture of young Indigenous Australians at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. A royal commission was launched within hours of the story going to air.
In August, an earthquake rocked central Italy, killing hundreds, and leaving many more displaced. Closer to home, an Australian woman and her British boyfriend were charged with the bizarre murder of a Balinese policeman. And the 2016 Rio Olympics were unique for their absence of some athletes due to Zika fears, and some other athletes due to their Russian nationality.
September taught us that miracles happen. Literally, when Mother Teresa was officially made a saint. The Catholic Church credited her with curing both an Indian woman with stomach cancer and a Brazilian man with brain abscesses. And figuratively, when the PM and his immigration minister used a United Nations meeting to encourage other world leaders to adopt Australia’s tough border-control policies. They argued that it would encourage their citizens to accept migrants. The miracle was that they both did so with a straight face.
October kicked off with two of the most remarkable grand finals in the histories of both the AFL and NRL. It also saw Bob Dylan, a good songwriter who is still alive, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. But like July (or the commissioning editor of this publication), October was buttering us up before leaving us with a lot of bad news. On October 10, NSW Premier Mike Baird took the bold step of unbanning greyhound racing in the wake of industry outcry and intense lobbying. It was a disappointing example of a perfect backflip, too often witnessed in modern politics. The month ended with the tragic deaths of four people at Dreamworld when a ride malfunctioned. The Thunder River Rapids Ride would be permanently closed and demolished.
Which brings me to November. Which brought me to the US. Like the rest of the world’s media, I came to report on Hillary Clinton’s historic election win, and instead witnessed Donald Trump become the president-elect. I watched, stunned, as it dawned on all the journalists at Hillary HQ that they had got accreditation for the wrong event. For many of us there in the room, it was like Brexit got Zika. But for many Americans outside of New York, it was the logical conclusion for an elitist system that had shortchanged them for so long. The irony of electing an immoral billionaire to tear up the rulebook was not lost on them. Oh, and then Leonard Cohen died. Perhaps the greatest songwriter we’ve known.
Tom Whitty is managing editor of Network Ten’s The Project and a 2016 Walkley finalist.