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2014, the year that was: Politics + Society

Tony Abbott promised a government of no surprises and no excuses. 2014 delivered anything but. AAP/Lukas Coch

In 1996, John Howard offered this aspiration for Australians:

I would like to see them comfortable and relaxed about their history; I would like to see them comfortable and relaxed about the present and I’d also like to see them comfortable and relaxed about the future.

Howard’s Coalition successor, Tony Abbott, assumed the prime ministership in 2013 with a characteristically pithier undertaking: “a government of no surprises and no excuses”. This year brought us none of the above.

Whether by chance or design, Australia returned in 2014 to Howard-era preoccupations: asylum seekers, terrorism, juggling relations with superpowers and allies old and new, budget cuts, national identity, trust in government and the role of the media. Our troops are back at war, too.

We are blessed, however, by comparison with other nations. Thais lost the government they elected to a coup for the 19th time. Hong Kong is cleaning up after protests that remind us that China, for all its progress on other fronts, suffers the same democracy deficit that was laid bare in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. The United Kingdom escaped an existential crisis when Scots voted not to break away after all.

Across Asia, fledgling democracies struggled to bury old repressive ways. In a hopeful sign, Indonesia elected a president drawn from outside the old political elite. India put on the biggest democratic show on earth, despite concerns about the victor, Narendra Modhi. And American voters added to Barack Obama’s difficulties by giving his Republican opponents control of Congress.

Australians certainly aren’t making life comfortable for their leaders. Opinion polls and the “polls that count” paint a picture of voters disillusioned even with democracy itself.

The federal Coalition enjoys the lower house majority that its predecessor lacked. Its problems lie in the Senate. After a re-vote in Western Australia, micro-party senators put on something of a political circus, with Jacqui Lambie leading the way and Clive Palmer doing his bit from the House.

State elections have put the Abbott government on notice. While Tasmania evicted a 16-year-old ALP government, Labor defied the odds in South Australia, then ousted a one-term government in Victoria for the first time since 1955.

Challenges to the old order

The major political parties and media institutions face many similar challenges. The Coalition and Labor’s failure to embrace opportunities for innovation in public participation and representation mirror the print giants’ struggle to renew fragmenting and ageing audiences.

Old loyalties and habits have been swept away. Issues of political dysfunction and public information, participation and trust are becoming pressing. This is why The Conversation has devoted series to reforming political parties, the Federation, federal-state relations, the state of Australia and public broadcasting.

Vested interests and Big Data-driven party branding threaten to squeeze out the vitality, vision and conviction that give voters reason to believe. The response to Gough Whitlam’s death may have been more a mark of what Australians feel is missing from their politics than nostalgia for his government.

The mixing of money and power by party machines that resist public scrutiny and input makes for an unhealthy brew. ICAC lifted the lid on corruption that crosses party lines in New South Wales. In Victoria, the toothless IBAC is an issue in the debate on integrity in government. And in Queensland, the Newman government seemed intent on rolling back the years to pre-Fitzgerald Inquiry days.

The need for scrutiny to ensure accountable government is obvious. Yet Australian media operate under more constraints than ever. Security laws that target whistleblowers and journalists, online surveillance and data mining all distort the balance between the powers of the state and the rights of citizens.

Moves away from open government exacerbate the imbalance. Operation Sovereign Borders took the political desire to control information to absurd lengths with its secrecy about operations to “stop the boats”. A deal to resettle refugees in Cambodia and violent death, abuse and mental trauma in offshore detention centres illustrate how the politics of asylum seekers still takes us to morally and legally dubious places.

Gough Whitlam passed away in October 2014 at the age of 98. AAP/Paul Miller

Old fears, new wars

Only terrorism inspires more disproportionately fearful responses. And we saw terror hit central Sydney when self-proclaimed cleric Man Haron Monis held 17 people hostage in a cafe for 16 hours in late December. Two people and Monis died.

Multicultural Australia has been tested since the emergence of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq attracted Australian and other westerners to the conflict. The tenor of the debate may have contributed to a groundswell of resistance to changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. Two moments of poor judgement – George Brandis’s assertion of a “right to be a bigot” and a short-lived parliamentary “burqa ban” – didn’t help. Age-old debates on freedom of expression gained new life.

Conflicts in Europe and the Middle East – including Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and Gaza – undeniably make the world a more dangerous place. This was brought home to Australians by the downing of flight MH17.

A century after the war to end all wars – the subject of another series – humanity still succumbs to the animal instincts and fears that conflict arouses. Even as more abuses and excesses of the “War on Terror” are exposed, Australia reprises its knee-jerk responses to 9/11. Once it was Reds under the beds; today it’s foreign fighters in our midst.

Salafist extremism and Islamophobia are both polarising forces. In this context, Abbott’s call to “Team Australia” divided as much as it united.

The rise of Islamic State in parts of Iraq and Syria drew foreign military forces back into the region. EPA

Australia redeemed itself as chair of the UN Security Council. The government’s star performer, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, even shrugged off the embarrassment of aid cuts being the single biggest budget saving.

Abbott attracted mixed reviews as host of the G20 leaders’ summit. He did better in ongoing global trade deals (the subject of another series). Abbott wrapped up agreements with South Korea, Japan and China in quick succession.

Institutional challenges

Religious institutions still have much work to do to recover from the Royal Commission’s exposure of the sexual abuse of children – and the cover-ups. The Catholic Church, in particular, might benefit from the soul-searching approach of Pope Francis.

The scandals in sport roll on too. NRL club Cronulla accepted suspensions for doping. In the AFL, the legal battle between ASADA and Essendon drags on.

The Socceroos gave us hope but lost their way in a World Cup that, as our extensive coverage explained, deserved its “world game” billing. Late in the year, the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes put the “triumphs and tragedies” of sport in perspective.

Phillip Hughes’ death on the cricket pitch put Australia’s love of sport into perspective. AAP/Dan Peled

What next?

Ideas about politics and society are naturally and properly contested in a democracy like ours. How we govern ourselves in the 21st century is up for debate. We must take stock of our resources and priorities, and be open to alternatives.

These big-picture debates may fail as media clickbait but are important in every other way. The Conversation is dedicated to covering such issues properly.

Treasurer Joe Hockey’s first budget sought to redefine the role of government. That is why the directions taken by the budget and the path-breaking Commission of Audit – both the subjects of extensive coverage – have been more than usually contentious.

Work and welfare policies, for instance, can make or break the budget and individuals too - especially when the odds are against the jobless.

When simple recipes for life fail us, philosophy offers deep stores of wisdom. Articles on philosophy, thought, decision-making and love invariably engaged readers – even when the moral dilemmas were those of the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Most enduring political and social solutions require us first to test prevailing beliefs and assumptions, to thrash out our differences before we can make progress. This is a perennial test of national maturity. No such challenge is bigger than reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians starting with proper recognition of our first peoples: this has eluded us since 1788.

Two of our most successful series in 2014, on class and youth in Australia, asked provocative questions about how we see ourselves and our future, and how to make it better. And that sums up our journalistic mission.

As we head into 2015, we look forward to engaging a growing global community of readers in The Conversation.

Top ten most read stories in 2014 for Politics + Society

No, you’re not entitled to your opinion by Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

The end justifies the means: why Queensland is losing the bikie war by Terry Goldsworthy, Bond University

Islamic State wants Australians to attack Muslims: terror expert by Nick O'Brien, Charles Sturt University

How to help take control of your brain and make better decisions by Daniel Bennett, University of Melbourne

Crime stats provide reality check in Queensland’s bikie crackdown by Terry Goldsworthy, Bond University

‘Fair trade’ cocaine and ‘conflict-free’ opium: the future of online drug marketing by James Martin, Macquarie University

Walter Mitty and The Secret Life of MTV by Lauren Rosewarne, University of Melbourne

Bogans and hipsters: we’re talking the living language of class by Christopher Scanlon, LaTrobe University

Explainer: can the Senate block the budget? by Adam Webster, University of Adelaide

Income and wealth inequality: how is Australia faring? by Peter Whiteford, Australian National University

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