From the glitter of gold to the grubby world of politics
Gold ... Usain Bolt wins again. Photo: Getty
Our memories of momentous times can be marshalled by numbers alone, the sum of a pivotal year reflected in history's shorthand: 1788; 1914; 1939; 1968; 1975; 2001.
Then there are years like 2012, ending unmourned and with a question mark – adding up to nothing much, handed on to history as a mess in search of meaning.
Not, let it be said, because the year was dull, far from it. Indeed, there were so many distractions that 2012 often seemed nothing more than a series of them, with Britain punching above its weight in this regard. Look, they cried: a Diamond Jubilee! Our Olympics! A royal baby! Simple, ancient certainties. But in matters of greater moment, the year is a muddle in the mind. We followed plots that thickened and solutions that beckoned, but turning points came with strings attached. Rupert Murdoch was humbled in 2011, but looked far from it in 2012; we watched as Syria bled, and bled, and still it bleeds, an open wound; we watched Barack Obama win again – but even hope and change come with a question mark nowadays, and a fiscal cliff still looms.
In very different ways, it was the year of living dangerously for the great and the good – for men such as Murdoch and Obama, who rolled the dice on their futures and their legacies, and for the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who tap-danced across a tightrope all year, batting off Murdoch-related scandals and a grim economy, while glad-handling Olympic winners and grinning Windsors. Indeed, if you wanted a snapshot of what powerful men look like under intense pressure, this was your year: Cameron turning purple at the Leveson media inquiry; Obama out to lunch in a presidential debate; or, locally, Alan Jones trying to grasp the meaning of an apology.
Partly courtesy of Jones, and his brutish assessment that Julia Gillard's father had died of shame, it was in Australia, too, that you had the best seat for unbroken observation of how a powerful woman reacts when the blowtorch is applied. It played out in ways not foreseen when the year began, the only certainty then being that for the Prime Minister, a year of living dangerously was to be assumed.
Barely a month into the year, the image of a PM under siege by Aboriginal tent embassy protesters and being dragged to safety by security staff set the mood for what was to come. That was January 26, Australia Day – and as nasty as it was, it was also pretty much the last civilised moment we saw all year. Gillard had been at a function with Tony Abbott and, when things turned hairy, she told her security staff to make sure he was being taken care of, too.
But civility was fleeting, and not just between the two rival leaders and their parties.
When the protest incident flared into a wider controversy – over whether a Gillard staffer had pointed protesters in Abbott's direction – it reinforced the perception that the Gillard government was a gang that couldn't shoot straight at anything other than its own feet. This, by and large, was the media narrative. If you considered that unfair, the best that could be said instead was that this was a gang cursed by remarkable bad luck.
Misfortune or dysfunction? We got an answer surprisingly swiftly. Four weeks later, Kevin Rudd at last made his long-rumoured move to wrestle his old job back from the woman who'd deposed him. He did it in typical Rudd style – dramatic, if misguided in hindsight – resigning while abroad on diplomatic business. He then rushed home to plot. This largely meant plotting media appearances, trying to tap into public support to overcome his unpopularity in the party room.
When Australians look back on 2012, they'll remember well the feeling of being witness to events that turned their stomach. The Rudd challenge was where the nausea set in, as we witnessed a brutal assault on the former prime minister, his character, his abilities. His colleagues declared him unfit for the office. It may have been cathartic for the party. It was ghastly for everyone else, and achieved little beyond Rudd's public humiliation: he never stood a chance anyway, Gillard thumping him in caucus, 71votes to 31.
Gillard declared the matter resolved once and for all, an assessment even her media tormentors generally shared. And after the brutal dispatch of Rudd, she had a further rare win when she quietly engineered one of the more startling cabinet manoeuvres seen in years, importing the retired NSW premier Bob Carr to the senate to take over as Foreign Minister. In March, another Queensland annoyance was removed when the state Labor government was finally put out of its misery. It was annihilation, but at least it was over and done with.
Labor optimists hoped at last they had a shot at ''clear air'', a phenomenon of political atmospherics unknown to the Gillard government in its almost twoyears in office.
March brought the start of the footy season, with the NRL and the AFL kicking off seasons that ended seven months later in manners entirely befitting a year that made no sense. The AFL sent its premiership cup north in the hands of a stern Sydney Swans; the next day the Melbourne Storm swiped the silverware for the south. That was all a long way off in April, a month that saw Black Caviar break the barriers of racing immortality: 20 wins from 20 starts.
Caviar made the nation smile and swell with pride. Politics and its practitioners often made us blush. NSW should be used to it, but the muck emerging from the Independent Commission Against Corruption involving Eddie Obeid and some coal exploration licences proved there are still barrels in this sinful state whose bottoms remain unscraped.
Meanwhile, at Macquarie Street, as his first anniversary passed in March, Barry O'Farrell was learning that incumbency is more complicated than insurgency: when those teachers and nurses are shouting on the streets, now they're shouting at you. For the Premier, December provided his kindest notices when he gave the PM a crucial helping hand with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a defining reform. Gillard in useful cahoots with a Lib was a rare sight otherwise.
In Canberra, Abbott proved relentless in his countless press availabilities, at which he often confirmed he meant business by donning a hard hat. He saved his interest in ladies and their fascinators for his private hours, but the news was bound to leak. This was the one real surprise Abbott provided all year: the revelation that he was reading the ''mummy porn'' page-turner Fifty Shades of Grey.
The rest of the time, he was as predictable as a kid on cracker night: he knows you get more bang for your buck firing a penny bunger from a bike pump than you do from a Catherine wheel, and is unapologetically not in the business of putting on a pretty show. Even as polls suggested voters found his bang-bang style of leadership a turn-off, crucially and persistently they also seemed willing to hand him the Lodge whatever their misgivings.
He had the carbon tax, the Craig Thomson brothel scandal and the general perception of government dysfunction in his kit. Then in April came the grubbiest scandal of all, the murky mess surrounding sexual harassment claims against the Speaker and Liberal defector Peter Slipper. Where this scandal came from remains unclear – but with a Federal Court judge suggesting James Ashby's lawsuit may have been part of a Liberal Party plot, at year's end the bigger question is where it may end.
Whatever the outcome, it was the Slipper scandal that gave the political year its one moment of clear passage to the history books. It was an unlikely twist, down the tawdry path of a parliamentary debate over the demeaning language used by Slipper in private text messages. Abbott railed that the nation's first female prime minister was supporting a man whose many sins now included misogyny.
What came next was the shot at the heart of sexism that was heard around the world – even if not, at first, in Canberra itself, where the press gallery found itself bewildered by the reaction to a moment it had either barely noted or criticised in the broader coverage of the day's events. But on YouTube, people watched Gillard in isolation, and shared it with others. Within a day, it was global news.
Undeniably, it represented a raw triumph for Gillard. And for the media it was simply another twist in a familiar narrative: a reflection, critics declared, of an industry out of touch with the country at large; of an industry shocked to find its own chosen narratives rejected by a vocal populace empowered by social media; of an industry hard-pressed to admit it is ever wrong.
As that debate raged, the year presented the media with existential concerns of more immediate import: this was the year the digital revolution secured its inevitable triumph over the printing press and hundreds lost their jobs at newspapers and in TV newsrooms.
So it was that when the London Olympics came in July, Australians consumed what publishers declared the ''digital first'' Olympics – a line in the sand if ever there was one, the greatest of sport's set-piece events redefined, where live TV might come to you on your phone or tablet while on the train to work. But the biggest surprise of the London Games had nothing to do with that. The story was that London had not merely pulled it off; it delivered what even parochial Australians agreed was an event that outdid the Sydney Games of 2000.
It was possibly London's greatest summer. The sun shone, and it rained gold medals. Andy Murray, pipped at Wimbledon a few weeks earlier by a resurgent Roger Federer, delivered a triumph many decades longed-for in the Olympic final. All this came after the nation had celebrated the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. So grateful was Her Majesty, she pretended to jump out of a helicopter with James Bond at the Games' opening ceremony.
Across the Atlantic, Barack Obama had more serious matters on his mind. Oh, to be a head of state whose only task is to make people feel good. For Obama, re-election while presiding over an economy still hurting from the crash of 2008 should have been a very tough task. But, helped in part by the Republicans' choice of the hard-to-love Mitt Romney, in the end it was a romp.
Now for the hard part: governing again with a Republican-controlled Congress as intractable as the one that stymied his agenda at every turn in his first term as President.
And then there are the moments no leader can plan on, when history springs a surprise.
The end of the year brought Obama one such moment – the mass shooting of 20 schoolchildren at Sandy Hook in Connecticut – and suddenly the prospects of how history will judge him have shifted again. The massacre stunned the world, then left the world bewildered as Americans again wrestled with the question of gun control.
The tragedy of Sandy Hook was among the saddest days of 2012. Closer to home, we shared our grief as violence took an innocent woman from her husband. The story of Melbourne's Jill Meagher shocked us at a time when not much does, but the horror of a young woman vanishing on her way home from an inner-city pub raised questions about our society that had no easy answers.
In Meagher's memory, people took to the streets in their thousands. She was a stranger to us all, but her death united us in mourning. Other moments made us more angry than sad, such as the September sight of the Sydney central business district consumed by the violent derailing of a protest march held by Muslims.
It was ugly, our better angels nowhere in evidence. For the best reminder that we possess them in abundance, we had to look to national treasures no longer with us – such as Margaret Whitlam, who died in March, or Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, gone in December.
At their passing, Australia paused to offer its grateful thanks. These women were a reminder that heroes matter, as was Neil Armstrong, whose giant leap for mankind made 1969 one of those years whose significance needs no explanation. Upon Armstrong's departure in August, millions of eyes were raised to the heavens rather than heads bowed in sorrow – the only fitting tribute to a man many saw as the last great American hero.
And as the year drew to a close, millions looked to Africa, united by concern that 2012 might also claim the world's last hero, the monument we know as Nelson Mandela.
Braced for sadness, we were instead delivered of an unexpected grace note two days after Christmas: the great man had been sent home from hospital to see in his 95th year. Welcome news indeed: 2012 – that mess in search of meaning – closes on a blessing to be counted.