Review: Frank Bongiornoon Australia in 2001

The Year Some Things Changed

In the opening pages of Phillipa McGuinness’s The Year Everything Changed: 2001, I was reminded that I bear a small amount of responsibility for the genesis of this book. McGuinness relates that the idea germinated when she was attending a conference at the Australian National University in Canberra early in 2014. I was one of the organisers of this gathering of the historical clan honouring one of the country’s finest historians, Alan Atkinson. McGuinness is a respected publisher; Atkinson is one of her authors.

At an early stage in his career, Atkinson had been centrally involved in the multi-volume collection called Australians: A Historical Library (1987). A clever idea put to work in this project – one usually credited to the late historian, Ken Inglis – was ‘slice history’. The collection was published to mark the Bicentenary of 1988. But what had Australia been like at the time of earlier major anniversaries? Accordingly, there are volumes devoted to the years 1838, 1888 and 1938. ‘Such a publishing conceit, so great for marketing’, McGuinness recalls thinking at the time. ‘You take a single year and interrogate the bejesus out of it’.

McGuiness the publisher was soon thinking like an author: what about 2001? So much happened that year, and not only 9/11. We are frequently assured that it changed everything. Was that true? Was the world never the same again after September 11?

And what of Australia? That was the year of the Tampa crisis and the Children Overboard Affair. It was the year Ansett collapsed. It was the year that John Howard managed to transform a government that seemed on the way out into a seemingly invincible election-winning machine (at least until it stopped winning elections). Even without 9/11, our corner of the world would surely have been very different after 2001. There was such an emotional distance between the optimism and generosity of the Sydney Olympics, and the fear and loathing Howard so cannily exploited at the elections of November 2001. If there is such a thing as a national mood, it was transformed over the course of that year, and especially so in the final months of 2001.

McGuinness reveals that she has another reason for recalling 2001 as The Year Everything Changed. Living in Singapore in the latter part of the year, she had a late-term miscarriage. It was, as you would expect, completely devastating. The passages that deal with the loss of her son hit me with a force that even her account of the mass killing of 9/11 could not quite manage. ‘I don’t ever want to feel so sad again’, she says. It’s like a punch to the reader’s solar plexus.

There is something here other than the famously brutal distinction between a tragedy (one death) and a statistic (one million deaths) that is often attributed to Stalin; for McGuinness evokes the drama, the tragedy and the humanity of 9/11 with enormous skill. This is no easy matter when you are dealing with events that most of us think we already know all about. But you can almost smell the acrid smoke as tonnes of materials never meant to burn were put to that merciless fire.

She has a sensitive eye for detail, both large and small, that tells a larger story, giving shape and meaning to events that often seem to defy them. When she visits the museum at the 9/11 memorial in New York, it is the shoes she notices. They make the story personal, each saying something about the wearer and their experience of the horror of that day. An impeccably trained academic historian might call them ‘material culture’ and, in the process, leech them of their power to narrate the stories of that day. McGuinness, in some of the most powerful prose in the book, writes of shoes that ‘kicked open blocked doors, stepped down hundreds of stairs, walked miles from the World Trade Center to get home. Shoes that melted and became dust. Not metaphors’.

Here is an accomplished maker of meaning. Her methods are not always those of the orthodox historian, but are no less valid for that. Meaning, for McGuinness, resides in what actions might disclose about the nation, the world, and sometimes what it means to be human. This is a book imbued with an acute moral sensibility but it does not moralise. Those firefighters who ran into the World Trade Center, the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 who bravely attacked the terrorists on the plane before it crashed in Pennsylvania, are for her as much a part of the story as the terrorists with their box-cutters and toxic ideology, and the politicians who have ever after exploited that moment to terrify and dominate us.

Meaning also comes from the connection between the personal and the public. McGuinness is present at the dowdy Centenary of Federation parade in Sydney, ‘Journey of a Nation’, on 1 January 2001 – but she can barely recall it. She turns to the ABC archive, and is reminded of why she had scrubbed it from memory: ‘If you were to combine Anzac Day, Mardi Gras, the Moomba Parade, the Schools Spectacular, the John Martin’s Christmas Pageant and your local primary school’s Easter bonnet parade, would you end up with something greater than the sum of its parts? I’m here to tell you that you would not.’ The Rainbow Serpent, she explains, ‘looked like a spectacular inflatable dinghy’.

It is not quite like being in New York on 9/11. But she is no detached witness, and even amidst the dry wit it is hard to miss McGuinness’s pleasure at the benign dagginess of this official effort to mark the occasion. Perhaps there is something to be said for a country whose people have forgotten, if they ever knew, the name of their first prime minister, a matter that figured in a regularly televised government advert of the time. If there is a better judged account of how modern Australian national identity works (and doesn’t work) than that in the opening chapter of this book, I don’t know about it. The ‘fizzer’ that was the Centenary of Federation reminds us that Australians do not look to their political history for heroes or founding stories.

This is a testing of memory against the record – yes, the parade was ‘lame’ both times – but the book is itself an exploration of memory and a meditation on historical periodisation. At its core is the way we live our lives in complicated relationships to public and political events. Some wash over us and leave no trace, even as others mark us forever. Most of us recall where we were when we heard about 9/11, but who remembers their whereabouts, or their reaction, when they heard about the death of Don Bradman in February of the same year?

The book’s structure feels effortless – so effortless that anyone who has ever written a serious work of non-fiction will understand that to assemble it took a great deal of trouble. Yes, there is a chapter on each of the months of the year; and yes, we find the major events where we would expect to find them: Tampa in August, 9/11 in September, the federal election in November, and so on.

But a year doesn’t unfold quite so neatly, and McGuinness will have faced some knotty difficulties in knowing where to place this and that. So, the Centenary of Federation, which included events in Sydney in January and Melbourne in May – the latter to coincide with the first sitting of parliament there in 1901 – are both in the chapter on January. The February chapter – on icons, myths, legends and heroes (‘more … than you can poke a stick at’, she assures us in the title) includes Kylie Minogue’s bum, Nicole Kidman’s divorce (from Tom Cruise) and Don Bradman’s batting average.

McGuinness is never cynical but she’s astute, making it plain enough that John Howard exploited Bradman’s prestige by projecting on to him the conservative values of his own Sydney childhood. And she is, at times, wickedly funny: ‘Did we imagine this man would live until he was 99.94 years old, at which point he would ascend like the mythic figure we had turned him into towards a celestial wicket, aglow in his whites, armed with nothing but the sacred willow of his bat, his baggy green atop his head?’.

The technological focus of the chapter on March represents a somewhat oblique relationship between month and theme, in this case technology. The Mir space station splashed down that month, but here we are otherwise reminded of the impact of the mobile phone – often a Nokia from Finland back then – the remarkable revival of Apple under Steve Jobs, with its iPod and iTunes – the latter launched in January 2001 – and the remarkable rise of Wikipedia, also launched in January. That certainly changed everything if you were a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. Wikipedia was a non-profit outfit but Google, a rather different beast although not yet a public company, made its first profit in 2001. And with that, we are decisively transported into the often perplexing algorithmic order in which we now find ourselves.

The year rolls on: and, at this point, seemingly much like any other of its era. In April we are discussing rights; primarily those of Indigenous people, in the context of battles over the Stolen Generations, historical frontier violence – the so-called (Keith) Windschuttle debate – and the cultural battles over the National Museum of Australia. It opened in its new building and exhibits in Canberra in 2001 to as much puzzlement as acclaim, and not a little condemnation from Australia’s increasingly belligerent culture warriors. To be taken back to this moment in the history wars is to be reminded of some of the meanest features of the Howard era, including the prime minister’s own unrelenting war on the left and its supposedly self-sustaining ‘guilt industry’.

Here was a man who came to office bemoaning the perpetual seminar on national identity, the navel-gazing of the chattering classes. But by 2001 it was clear that Howard was even more obsessed with such matters than his predecessor Paul Keating had been. The government’s sponsorship of the denialism of that cold-war leftover Quadrant and its allies in the op-ed pages of the Murdoch press was a concerted effort to counter the narrative of Indigenous dispossession and oppression that had underpinned both Mabo and Wik, High Court judgments interpreted by the right as a sure indication that the courts had been overtaken by fashionable leftism.

The churches also seemed resurgent; and if that now seems a case of the Owl of Minerva taking flight at dusk, that was not how it seemed in 2001. George Pell was the man of the moment, friend and confidant of conservative politicians, ferocious in battle with his enemies on the left, ruthless in dealing with dissent within his own church. Appointed Catholic Archbishop of Sydney in May 2001, he brought the old ideological fervour of Melbourne’s Catholic politics to the more pragmatic atmosphere of the Sydney diocese. Pell advised Catholics that they should display at least a crucifix and a statue of Our Lady in their homes. While he would not have echoed Papist interior decorating advice of this kind, Peter Jensen, the evangelical Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, was otherwise on the same page as his Catholic counterpart in the battle against godless secularism and moral laxity. But when Howard appointed another Anglican Archbishop, Peter Hollingworth, as governor-general, critics began to wonder whether Howard was seeking some kind of renegotiation of the relationship of church and state.

It would all unravel in due course. Hollingworth was later forced to resign when accused of having mismanaged child sex abuse accusations that had occurred some years before in his Brisbane bailiwick. Pell, unbending and self-righteous, would rise to high office in the Vatican before returning to Australia to face unspecified charges in the Australian courts. But the wars of religion had already been lost. Census returns showed that fewer and fewer Australians identified with any particular faith. Sex abuse scandals rapidly eroded the moral authority of the churches in Australia, as elsewhere in the west. The diocese that Jensen was leading back in 2001 handed over a million dollars to the opponents of marriage equality in 2017 in what proved a fruitless – and, in the eyes of many critics, morally bankrupt – attempt to bolster a losing cause. In one respect, though, the religious order of 2001 abides. The hostility to Islam that was bubbling away during the early part of the year, and which exploded with Tampa and 9/11, is still with us, possibly stronger than ever. It has few rivals in its coarsening impact on our political discourse.

The cultural battles of the era could easily be seen as diversionary, given the still unsettled nature of the economy at that time. The nation in 2001 was not Howard’s Australia of the China Boom. China in 2001 was still only the world’s sixth-largest economy. The prosperity it would bring Australia was largely yet to come and, at least in its scale and longevity, mainly unanticipated.

The late 1990s had seen the Asian financial crisis and the dot-com boom. The Australian economy weathered both without a recession, but McGuinness reminds us that the Australian dollar dipped to 48.33 US cents in April 2001, its lowest rate since the float of 1983. No one recalls 2001 as a banana republic moment, in the way the currency plunge of 1986 has been recalled. Rather, 2001 was the time of the ‘mean and tricky’ Howard government, the description used by Liberal Party federal president Shane Stone in a leaked memo when Howard seemed to be heading for oblivion.

The Goods and Services Tax had been instituted in mid-2000, but the paperwork associated with it was widely resented by Australian businesses. Fuel prices were soaring. And some of the country’s most famous businesses bit the dust. One.Tel, the telecommunications firm; insurer HIH, Australia’s largest ever corporate collapse; and then, perhaps most frighteningly of all for those comforted by the old and familiar, the end of the airline, Ansett. Billions of dollars in share value disappeared and thousands of workers lost their jobs. As McGuinness points out, if not for the memorable events from August onwards at home and abroad, the year would surely be recalled as one of corporate disaster.

Here, as elsewhere, McGuinness moves deftly between Australia and the rest of the world, from the collapse of HIH to that of Texan energy company Enron; rather as she herself moved with her family from Australia to Singapore during the year. The circumstances – her husband took up the offer of a transfer when Optus was taken over by SingTel – are explained in the context of a neat little chapter (July) titled ‘Demography is destiny’. Here, she seems as comfortable talking about the 2001 census results as telling us what The Secret Life of Us might say about Australia in 2001, when it first screened. (Yes, it had Indigenous and gay characters, and the whole gang of nice-looking young people seemed really hip, right down to that St Kilda address.)

McGuinness is often present in the text, reminding herself and telling us where she was and what she was doing at this or that time. This could have been disastrous – how do you connect the largely undisturbed and uneventful lives that most of us among the Australian middle class live each day with the drama of a 9/11? – but her combination of history and memoir gels. That was not all which might not have worked. The book’s Australian focus yet global reach often threaten to elude the author’s control. But, in the end, they do not, partly because the effect of her approach is to evoke one of the most powerful realities of the era: an intensified globalisation.

McGuinness’s voice is direct, informal and intimately conversational, almost inviting the reader to place their own story in her text. (While working on the book, McGuinness started a Facebook page inviting people to share their memories.) Indeed, it is well-nigh impossible to read a book like this and not recall one’s own experience of those times. This is part of the pleasure of the text, and probably the author’s intention. It is an impressive non-fiction debut, even for an editor who has seen as many important books through to publication as McGuinness has as an editor and publisher.

My own memories of the public events of that time seem rather like shards of glass that are sometimes Australian, sometimes ‘foreign’, but invariably brought into a single frame by the arena in which we encounter most of them: the media. For what it’s worth, my own 2001 was spent as a still young university lecturer struggling to build a career in a country town in my first permanent academic job. I recall many late nights and early mornings, too much essay-marking, and probably too much drinking. It was hard to imagine a major terrorist incident disturbing Armidale’s quiet streets, and our airport seemingly remained as undisturbed by the war on terror as your ordinary bus terminal. 2001 didn’t change everything if you lived in the New England region of New South Wales. Handing out how-to-vote cards at a booth in the little town of Uralla for the federal election, I recall one bloke complaining that the country had gone to dogs since metrification. For some reason, that has not featured as a major driver of voting behaviour in academic studies of that election. The Tampa crisis seemed to defy many things I thought I understood about Australians. Now, I think I understand a little better.

‘Events, dear boy, events’, the British prime minister Harold Macmillan is supposed to have replied when asked about what was most likely to determine the course of politics. But historians have often been sceptical about the force of events, being more likely to see them as the product of deeper forces and structures. The great French historian, Fernand Braudel, described events as ‘a surface disturbance, the waves stirred up by the powerful movement of tides’.

McGuinness, who quotes this passage, is evidently attracted to Braudel’s idea. But her book surely proves that Macmillan had a point. Events do matter, possessing a force that cannot be reduced to the underlying structures to which they are connected. When the Howard government decided not to allow the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa to land on Christmas Island with its cargo of desperate refugees – naturally, the subject of the August chapter of the book – it changed the face of Australian politics in ways that are with us still.

Few could have imagined it at the time, but that popular stand – about three-quarters of the electorate told pollsters they approved – released a toxin into Australian national life that no drug has ever been able to clear. What looked like a gift from the gods for a struggling government, and simply a case of terribly bad luck for poor Kim Beazley and the Labor Party, poisoned our politics for a generation.

Tampa injected a rancour into our politics comparable with the conscription crisis of the First World War, reinvigorated the politics of race, and would wreck Australia’s international image and regional relationships in ways barely imaginable at the time the Pacific Solution was improvised by a desperate government. Even Donald Trump, it seems, is in awe at the brutality of Australia’s treatment of refugees who arrive by sea. Today, only the hard right boast about the policy. For others, it is grim necessity, a product with an expired use-by date, or a policy so abominable that it makes decent people ashamed of their own country.

In the end, McGuinness is too acute an observer to accept the journalistic cliché that 2001 did in fact change everything. Tampa, for instance, was novel but it was also old. It represented a government newly determined to take a hard line against asylum-seekers. But it was also rooted in the Australian past, continuing long-standing fears of unexpected boat arrivals and of being swamped and displaced by envious people with dark skins and odious cultures. Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan that followed 9/11 continued Australia’s habit of providing support to great and powerful friends – and especially the greatest and most powerful of them all – in times of trouble. In many ways, there was nothing new to see here, any more than the political misjudgements of the Iraq War commitment of 2003 in support of the United States could be seen to represent a new departure in Australian policy.

Nor did 2001 see the invention of fear as an instrument of political manipulation. Rather, the extraordinary happenings of that year provided the powerful with more potent means to exploit fear and accumulate more power. It was notably successful in diverting public attention from global problems that require patience, skill and imagination to solve – such as climate change – rather than the beating of chests and the flexing of muscles. As we contemplate a world seemingly more disordered and more bereft of intelligent leadership than at any time since the 1940s, we find ourselves living yet with the consequences of a cynicism, ignorance, and recklessness given free rein in those unhappy times.