It is a Chinese proverb repeated so often as to verge on cliché: “may you live in interesting times”. And 2011 was nothing if not interesting.
This was the year where democracy spread across the Arab world, sometimes via peaceful people power and elsewhere at the point of a Kalashnikov. Meanwhile angry crowds denounced the passing of a carbon tax in Canberra as the death of Australian democracy.
In Australian politics, the story of the year was Julia Gillard, or more accurately, whether she would make it to 2012 as prime minister. Rarely has a political figure come under the level of scrutiny to which Australia’s first female PM has been subjected, with even her accent being picked apart – by Macquarie University’s Jennifer Peck – and analysed for what it can tell us about the woman herself.
A defining issue of the year was the Gillard government’s Sisyphean struggle to develop a workable policy on asylum seekers. After the High Court struck down the so-called Malaysian Solution, Gillard desperately attempted to make truck with the Coalition in order to legislate around the court’s effective ban on offshore processing of refugees.
Tony Abbott refused to assist Gillard and instead the government was left with no choice but to reinstate the onshore processing of asylum seekers. Late in the year, the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters dramatically increased and the sinking of a boat laden with refugees bound for Australia off Java, killing dozens, demonstrated the human cost behind the increasingly vicious headlines.
The nexus between the media and politics, both in Australia and internationally, was an issue over the course of 2011. Former Labor Cabinet minister Lindsay Tanner argued in his book Sideshow that Australian politicians were being debased by ever-increasing need to “feed the beast” that is the 24 hour news cycle.
Tanner engaged with Conversation founder Andrew Jaspan in a wide ranging interview on this thesis.
But the rules of the game seemed to change when The Guardian broke the story that reporters from News International’s News of the World tabloid had hacked into the voicemail messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. While the phone hacking story had been running since 2006, the public reaction to the news that Dowler had been deemed “fair game” by the News of the World led to an outpouring of rage that saw a rattled James Murdoch order the closure of the long-running and immensely profitable Sunday tabloid.
Politicians around the world were quick to react to the public outrage as further details of phone hacking by Murdoch-owned operations were revealed. In Australia, the Greens – who had long been waiting for an opportunity to take on a hostile Murdoch press – pushed for an inquiry into Australia’s media. Sydney University’s John Keane and Bob Brown explored this and many more issues in an extensive discussion held in Brown’s Canberra office.
In the wake of the Dowler revelations James and Rupert Murdoch were called to appear before the House of Commons Sport, Media and Culture Select Committee, in what the ageing tycoon called “the most humble day of my life”.
In the sporting field, the AFL snared the largest TV rights deal in Australian history. In a conversation with Melbourne University’s Stuart Macintyre, AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou spoke of a brave new world where the league would sell content direct to subscribers via the NBN, bypassing the broadcasters altogether. The All Blacks gave their nation a scare before winning the Rugby World Cup by a single point.
Two men who had long refused to bend to the will of the American-led West met their deaths in 2011. Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was killed – assassinated, or even murdered according to some – by US Navy SEALs in his home in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. Deakin University’s Mat Hardy leapt into action and filed the first analysis in the Australian media barely an hour after the news of Bin Laden’s demise had broken.
Muammar Gaddhafi was dragged out of a sewerage tunnel outside his tribal home of Sirte and summarily executed after NATO had assisted rebel forces in ejecting the long-time Libyan strongman from his capital of Tripoli. Footage showing a rebel militiaman sodomising Gaddafi with a knife or a stick before he was killed provided a grim reminder of the reality of armed revolution.
The final weeks of the year saw the deaths of two major figures who could not have been more different in their approach to life and leadership. Czech dissident and artist turned politician Václav Havel passed away and was mourned by millions both at home and internationally. The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il a day later left a dangerous power vacuum in the nuclear armed state.
A very interesting year ended as it started.
On the horizon
The great claim of journalism is that it writes the first draft of history. Prognostication is an entirely different matter. But we can still look forward to 2012 with some accuracy.
At home, Julia Gillard’s predecessor Kevin Rudd has not given up the belief that he could yet become her successor. The ALP heavyweights did not reconcile their differences in 2011 and speculation is rife that Rudd will mount a leadership challenge before Easter. Gillard’s cabinet reshuffle gave a number of factional players the motive to support and putative putsch.
Internationally, the US presidential election, while not held until early November, will dominate world attention. Despite the many woes of the United States, it remains the largest economy on Earth with by far and away the most potent military.
The man or woman who wins that election – and the pundits currently suggest President Obama will defy conventional wisdom and win re-election amid a dire economy – will be the most powerful person on the planet.
In other elections, the French presidential contest will shape Europe’s response to the ongoing debt crisis and impending recession. Economic imperatives will influence politics not just in Europe, but around the world. China’s efforts to engineer a soft landing for a slowing economy will have a direct impact on Australia’s standard of living.
The forces unleashed by the Arab Spring will continue to play out. 2011 drew to an ominous close in Libya and Egypt, with rival militia fighting for control of Tripoli’s airport while the Egyptian Army turned its guns on protestors in Tahrir Square. The dream of democracy could yet become a blood-soaked nightmare more reminiscent of post-invasion Iraq than the stable Muslim state of Turkey.
Iran will continue to be the focus of much attention. Over the course of 2012 the world will come to understand that the much-anticipated war on Tehran is already underway, albeit not the kind of war we recognise. Instead of tanks crossing the border, war on Iran involves viruses like Stuxnext being planted on laptops.
Then there are, as Donald Rumsfeld famously said, the “unknown unknowns”. By the close of 2012 men and women we have never heard of will be household names and some very famous people will have died unexpectedly.
Events we never thought possible will have come to pass and things that seem to ready to happen won’t. Do not, for example, be surprised if Syria’s President Assad clings to power, albeit on the back of a ruthless crackdown on his own people.