If you had the feeling that global politics in 2016 operated on something of a fault line, you’re not alone. Month after month, the world was rocked by unexpected yet momentous events: terror attacks in Nice and Brussels, Brexit and the rise of Trump, to name just a few.
Here in Australia, our federal election on July 2 seemed fairly tame by comparison, despite the fact that it took more than a week for the result to be known (even then, we didn’t know if it would be a minority or majority government).
There was, too, the unmistakable irony of going to a double-dissolution election because of a fractured and unwieldy Senate, only to find ourselves after the election with a razor-thin majority government and a fractured and unwieldy Senate.
Before all of that, the relatively new Turnbull government was having trouble passing its industrial relations laws, the rejection of which by the Senate was the ostensible reason for the double-dissolution election. Part of this reflected the changing nature of trade unions, which we covered in a series in April.
It wasn’t until December that the government finally negotiated the passage of the enabling bill for the Australian Building and Corruption Commission (ABCC), by which time, judging by the response, few Australians seemed to care.
Tale of two Australias
One of the most striking aspects of the federal election result was the extent to which, as Dennis Altman wrote, the “rusted on” vote has diminished. This reflects, albeit in a more understated way, the seismic political shifts happening elsewhere in the world: the shift away from establishment parties and institutions; the boom of right-wing populism.
In Australia, this was reflected by the rise of the “micro” parties at the expense particularly of the two major parties. One Nation and Pauline Hanson returned seemingly stronger than ever; the moderate populist line offered by the Nick Xenophon team also appealed. Jacqui Lambie, Bob Katter and Cathy McGowan were returned to parliament while the “Human Headline”, Derryn Hinch, joined the Senate.
Since the election, the micro parties and independents have provided much of parliament’s colour – One Nation has already split with controversial Senator Rod Culleton, while Family First’s Bob Day quit after his business collapsed.
Political donations continue to be in the spotlight, with calls for more transparency on exactly what donors expect – and are given – their generous support.
We can only hope for a calmer and more constructive parliament in 2017. We’re unlikely to get it, of course, but we can hope.
Take a jump to the left? No, a huge step to the right
Our seemingly endless election campaign was sandwiched between two cataclysmic and unexpected politic events.
The first was the stunning success of the Brexit campaign, led by Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, which was not predicted when Britons went to vote in the referendum. The result caused British Prime Minister David Cameron to resign, and Theresa May to become the UK’s second female prime minister.
The Brexit result left many pundits wondering how they didn’t see it coming. But if that was a surprise, it was nothing alongside the November 8 election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, so sure were so many that Hillary Clinton would become the first woman elected to what is still arguably the most powerful job in the world. She had, after all, performed clinically in the three televised debates, while Trump seemed to stumble from one disaster to another, all the while using the media to his advantage – even though the media were largely critical of him.
Trump’s election caused – and continues to cause – a great deal of consternation, with worries about how he will handle the Asian region, immigration and the economy among a host of other issues. His presidency promises one thing for sure: it will not be dull.
Tale of two Australias, part two: gay marriage, safe schools and free speech
Politics and policy are often slow to catch up with social change. With that in mind, and with the legalisation on gay marriage poised to go to a plebiscite under a returned Coalition government, we launched a series in May looking at just how the family has changed.
Still, after heated debate and canvassing both the pros and cons of a plebiscite, the notion was eventually rolled by the Senate out of fears of the damage a public campaign could do young LGBTI people and their families.
The same-sex marriage debate has embedded in it a question of freedom of speech, which had a nexus with another passionately contested, and still unresolved, debate: whether Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act should be changed. So hotly debated was it that we published a series on the politics of free speech in September.
Led by powerful conservative voices within the government such as Senator Cory Bernardi, you can expect to hear plenty more about freedom of speech, and in particular 18C, in the year ahead.
That wasn’t the only issue that was exercising Bernardi and other conservatives such as George Christensen. The Safe Schools Coalition, and the sex ed program it offers in Australian schools, became one of the most fiercely contested issues inside the parliament and in society more broadly. Of most concern seemed to be discussing issues of gender identity and fluidity with schoolchildren – an issue on which research is often cast aside in favour of ideology. Again, there is little doubt that this debate will be revisited in the coming year.
The nation was shocked in July after the airing of a Four Corners program detailing the abuse of children at the Don Dale facility in the Northern Territory. The shocking footage immediately prompted the prime minister to announce a royal commission, as our authors unpacked the nature of torture, the failure of the state to care for prisoners – especially the very young – and why so many Indigenous children are incarcerated in the first place.
Islamic State falters in Iraq and Syria, and terror hits Europe
What may have initially looked like an accident: a truck ploughing into a crowd of people in the French city of Nice, was soon revealed to be an act of terrorism.
This followed the Brussels bombing in March, for which Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Then, in December, a truck ploughed into a Christmas market in Berlin, in an attack eerily similar to the one in Nice, boding ill for the year ahead and the ongoing threat of terror.
Meanwhile, the cities of Mosul and Aleppo will be forever etched in our minds, for the worst possible reasons. Even though IS is on the back foot in both cities, their futures, and those of their citizens, remain uncertain.
There is no sign this will end any time soon.
Hot in the cities
Closer to home, throughout 2016 we explored how our cities are responding to challenges such as climate change and the pressures of simultaneous urban expansion and densification on resources, urban infrastructure and services, including the humble public toilet.
Most competing “global cities” aspire to be more resilient, sustainable and liveable. Yet the problems of unaffordable housing and transport congestion seem a world away from the technology-driven promise of smart cities. Questions of grossly unequal access, opportunity, wealth and wellbeing across cities continued to occupy our authors.
What will the new year hold?
After all that happened in 2016, 2017 will have to be a quieter, gentler year, right? Well, let’s just put it this way: one of the first major international political events on the 2017 calendar is the January 20 inauguration of the next president of the United States and avid tweeter, Donald Trump.
Happy new year.
Authors: John Watson, Editor, The Conversation