A firefighter is helped back to safety as the Gospers Mountain fire crosses the Bells Line.

A firefighter is helped back to safety as the Gospers Mountain fire crosses the Bells Line. Credit:Nick Moir

We had to know when to tune in, back in August when the most dire of days provided a state infection toll that topped 700. You could feel the nation sink as the numbers rose. It was a testimony to the national stature of his appearances that the country would speculate whether Andrews would appear in a North Face jacket, and what news that might portend.

Andrews seemed to do his best and sometimes disappoint, which made him emblematic of the year.

In NSW, Gladys Berejiklian – shrugging off scandals including her secret relationship with disgraced MP Daryl Maguire, the koala wars and the crowing of her state’s early virus victory – got the worst of political deals. As Victoria foundered, she nimbly picked fights with premiers north and south, attempting to get some allowances as the “premier” state from her Labor-led rivals in Victoria and Queensland. In particular, she found herself enduring some tense moments with Annastacia Palaszczuk, whose stubbornness on the Queensland-NSW border closure was a sticking point to the very end of the year.

From left: Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and SA Premier Steven Marshall in Canberra in December.

From left: Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and SA Premier Steven Marshall in Canberra in December.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Gladys wasn’t having a bar of the Brisvegas bull.

But was it too soon? Yes, it was. The NSW premier now endures her own COVID-19 disaster as the year ends. The northern beaches have presented their own end-of-year fever dream in which cafes, gyms and the general run of everything else leaves a premier wishing it was happening to some other place.

Who’d have thought it would end like this? No one picked that this crock of a year would close with Sydney, rather than Melbourne, in a funk. But almost nothing in the headlines today would have made sense a year or perhaps even a week ago.

The good news? A vaccine! A year ago we didn’t know we needed one.

The bad news? Trump is reportedly pondering a coup. A year ago we didn’t know we needed one. (We don’t, but tell that to an apparently deranged POTUS. The President may be thinking about staying put, as the Secret Service ponders plans to drag him out.)

Fiery beginning

What a year. It began in smoke and flames, and we wondered how we would breathe. Whatever perils we face at the dawn of 2021, climate change remains the horror story that auditioned 12 months ago.

As January bloomed, Australia choked. COVID-19 had found its feet recently in China, but at the beginning of 2020 we had little notion that a disaster was coming beyond the infernal smoke.

Stealing their thunder?: A climate change protester in Melbourne during the height of the bushfires.

Stealing their thunder?: A climate change protester in Melbourne during the height of the bushfires.Credit:Chris Hopkins

You can scan 2020 and ponder the worst bits, and there were lots of them. But the last January we endured – with our towns shrouded and burning – seemed indelible and defining of the year. Or so we thought. They weren’t just bushfires. Our cities were scarred in apocalyptic red and grey. We wore masks to hold the poison at bay.

We didn’t know then that masks would become a part of daily life in another context.

Farewell: President Donald Trump walks away after speaking at the White House after the November election.

Farewell: President Donald Trump walks away after speaking at the White House after the November election.Credit:AP

The pandemic had begun two months earlier in China. It was January before we had a clue, February before we had a care, March before we really began to worry.

And then the world at large changed, along with the world as we knew it locally. We stayed home, we worked at home and the streets of our cities and towns emptied as home became a journey from bedroom to bathroom to a safe trip to the shops.

What was a Zoom? We’d all learn about that soon enough. Comparisons were offered in those terrible months to wartime, as if wartime involved people sternly advising other people to click “mute” as their dogs jumped on their laps to the amusement of a remote office gathering. So many remote office gatherings.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison jumped on our laps at every opportunity, in the apparent belief he was welcome.

He had begun 2020 in a mess – somehow managing history’s only shitty summer trip to Hawaii. He also managed to cock up a walk-through and a botched handshake in the bushfire disaster area of Cobargo. That aborted greeting – a TV moment flashed around the world – seemed a defining image at the time. But Morrison turned it around, riding the COVID wave to some mighty poll numbers as the year ends. He faced challenges beyond the pandemic — the scandal over alleged war crimes by our troops in Afghanistan presented one of the more striking prime ministerial news conferences, while he also faced questions over his handling of relations with China. Barley, lobster, wine and even coal were flashpoints in a trade war.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison received a cold response from residents of fire-devastated Cobargo in the 2019/20 fires.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison received a cold response from residents of fire-devastated Cobargo in the 2019/20 fires.Credit:Nine News

Doomed in January, ascendant in December? It was a bad year to make sense of politics.

Overall, there were two words that defined the year.

COVID, of course. And Trump, inevitably.

The orange-skinned mutant melded with the virus and made it difficult to make sense of anything else. He first declared it a non-event. He also declared that conquering the virus was his greatest work. Most memorably, he suggested various cures – including drinking bleach. It was all insane.

One blessing emerged from the Trump year: Sarah Cooper, who brought her miming skills to bear on the madness. Millions were entranced by Cooper’s genius amid the White House mayhem.

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We needed laughs, because there was much to make us cry. Those bushfires were enough – a globally televised concert brought the world together in February – but it was those lurking headlines about a virus emerging in Wuhan that really set the stage.

On January 25, we read of three cases in NSW and one in Victoria. It was the harbinger of what was to come.

In the meantime, we reeled as the disease of domestic violence took a too-infrequent turn on the front pages. The deaths of Hannah Clarke and her children on a Brisbane street shocked the world. But within weeks of that horror, we were consumed by the crisis taking over the planet.

In Perth, in March, Australia recorded its first COVID death. What would, could and should be done?

There was much debate, here and abroad, and while the convening of Morrison’s national cabinet seemed a nominal settlement of differences, the natural turn of events had other ideas. State borders were closed. The West embraced its remoteness from the infected big capitals. Victoria, NSW and Queensland did what they have always done: brawl. And in the southern capital there was a mighty mess mid-year as a hotel quarantine misfire led to disaster and hundreds of deaths.

 Nine public housing estates in North Melbourne were placed into lockdown in July.

Nine public housing estates in North Melbourne were placed into lockdown in July.Credit:Penny Stephens

Cities closed down.

Other pursuits

And what was to become of our spare time, typically consumed by sport and music and other pursuits?

These pleasures seemed, and mostly were, doomed, killing many incomes and careers and leaving the national pastimes in a quandary. The AFL and the NRL turned cartwheels to save what they could of their seasons. Crowd-free and COVID-safe, they said. How silly was 2020? It was this silly: you could buy a cardboard cut-out of yourself to sit in the empty stands.

But hats off to those who got it done. Footy won. The Richmond Tigers brought home a jubilant flag against Geelong, and the Melbourne Storm clubbed Penrith in the NRL grand final.

These were rare pickings. Around the world, sport was largely cancelled – even the mighty Olympics, scheduled for Tokyo in 2020 was postponed till 2021, or so they hope.

Taylor Swift has surprised the world with the release of her ‘evermore’ album, a project she has referenced as “folklore’s sister record”.

Taylor Swift has surprised the world with the release of her ‘evermore’ album, a project she has referenced as “folklore’s sister record”.

For the first time since World War II, Wimbledon cancelled itself. This was sensible.

For entertainment, we turned inward — when the history of 2020 is written, it will record that we stopped going to the movies because we had no choice. Streaming was the thing, and millions engaged. Whether we will ever return in numbers to the cinemas remains to be seen.

For music, we went online. And for joy, there was the prodigious output of Taylor Swift – two albums and counting. Count those blessings, because there were precious few venues to dance in otherwise. COVID-19 meant you could neither sing nor dance nor – believe it or not – chant.

Trumped-up politics

An odd year it was, full of strange questions, and in keeping with the times we had that most ridiculous American President.

Four years of Donald Trump scarcely prepared us for his swan song, a months’ long event that continues until this day and defies belief. The US as constitutionally defined has survived and thrived more than a couple of centuries.

Trump has thrown all that into doubt. But let’s admit the terrible truth: we find this man utterly compelling.

In the end, the US has ended up with President-elect Joe Biden – an old but safe and sane pair of hands. It seems an unlikely but welcome outcome. One of the more remarkable things about 2020 is that for only the second time in history, an American president was impeached. That was back in January. Trump dodged that bullet, and it seems like an aeon ago. On November 3 – and for those endless days afterwards – sanity prevailed, by more than 7 million votes.

Biden brings calm, a welcome relief from what just happened. And what did just happen, in this year to end all years?

When The Washington Post asked readers to describe 2020 in a word or phrase, one respondent described it perfectly: “Like looking both ways before crossing the street and then getting hit by a submarine.”

Victory: President-elect Joe Biden with his vice president-elect Kamala Harris.

Victory: President-elect Joe Biden with his vice president-elect Kamala Harris.Credit:AP

How else to describe a year that brought this much unexpected grief and uncertainty?

There was no comfort looking abroad.

Cast your eyes to Britain and you found a prime minister and a political mess as absurd as in the US. Boris Johnson ends 2020 reaping what he sowed – a Brexit mess amid a COVID-catastrophe.

COVID-19 was the endless headline, the story that never stopped – it ruined lives from the poorest to the richest. Sweden, that model of Scandinavian efficiency and good sense, boasted of its response, only to come a cropper towards the end of the year as herd immunity proved a false hope. In India, cases topped 10 million and deaths soared. It didn’t much matter where you lived. One of COVID-19’s more stunning invasions was into the offices of the mighty. Trump got it. So did Boris Johnson and France’s Emmanuel Macron. At one point there were more active cases in the White House than in the whole of Australia.

Of course, the world and its other troubles and messes didn’t just stop. Russia’s Vladimir Putin continued to repel and fascinate; political opponents like Alexei Navalny found poison in their underwear. None of it bothered Trump – who continued to brush off Putin’s perfidy in the manner of someone with something to hide.

But there was nowhere to hide for the President in 2020. The Black Lives Matter protests, prompted by the shocking videotaped police killing of George Floyd, took over America and cities around the world. The movement was the most compelling non-COVID-19 event of the year.

Bound for Hollywood: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in January.

Bound for Hollywood: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in January.Credit:AP

Elsewhere, there was soap opera and sin. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle dumped the royal family and hightailed it to Hollywood. Like everyone else with something to sell in 2020, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex ended the year flogging a podcast.

Back in London, the Windsors soldiered on regardless, even as heir to the throne Prince Charles found himself among the COVID-infected. Prince Andrew went to ground after he was caught up in the Jeffrey Epstein child-sex trafficking and abuse scandal, which in July continued to consume all in its path as Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested for her alleged role in enabling the now-dead convicted sex offender. Will she live to tell the tale? Stay tuned.

In February Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s conviction of sexual assault and rape by a New York jury was considered a milestone verdict for the #MeToo movement that inspired women around the world to go public with misconduct allegations against powerful men.

Back home, former PMs worked hard to suck up what oxygen was available. Kevin Rudd made enormous noise and took on Rupert Murdoch petitioning for a royal commission into the media baron’s dominance. Malcolm Turnbull joined in, and also wrote a book about his time as PM. Rudd and Turnbull had in common that everything that happened to them was someone else’s fault, making them perfect leaders of modern Australia.

2021 will be telling, with a federal election on the cards and the political landscape remaining uncertain. It makes it hard for an Opposition leader to get any clean air, as evidenced by Anthony Albanese’s year, in which he barely landed a punch on the PM.

Vale to greats

The year ending is unimaginably sad. Close to 2 million people have died worldwide in the pandemic, and we have also said farewell to some giants.

John Le Carre brought to life a world of intrigue we could barely imagine, his way with words unmatched. Charley Pride gave voice to songs we’d never heard. Australia doffed its hat to its longest-serving deputy PM, Doug Anthony, to a governor-general, Michael Jeffery, and the immortal Melbourne superstar Helen Reddy, whose singular roar — I Am Woman — echoed through the decades.

The football giant Diego Maradona died last month.

The football giant Diego Maradona died last month.Credit:AP

And then there was Bond – James Bond. The one and only Sean Connery died in October, taking his scruffish Scottish elan with him. Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier in flight, left us in December, aged a grand 97. Diego Maradona died in God-like fashion, much too young at 60.

And so many more. The year brought eulogies for the justice and feminism pioneer Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose passing left the US Supreme Court bereft of her stoic conscience; music icon Eddie van Halen; and Hollywood stars of a golden era including screen siren Diana Rigg; the indelible Gone With The Wind beauty Olivia De Havilland, who ventured to 104; the incomparable Kenny Rogers and Little Richard; Australian political pioneer Susan Ryan; irreplaceable public voices Alan Ramsey and Mungo MacCallum.

Bring on a happier new year.

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