Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: Highlights and Lowlights

Everyone is doing one of these, so I thought I would contribute my list of the highs and lows of 2008.

Highlights of 2008

1. Barack Obama's US presidential election victory

After the campaign, the actual Presidency is bound to disappoint. It would have been pleasing to see Francis the Talking Mule take over as a Democratic Party president after eight years of the Bush administration, but Obama's campaign brought so many things together so seamlessly. Tapping into the 'Netroots' movement, the use of social media, a formidable bottom-up fundraising machine, and a campaign that actually offered hope rather than cynicism. Even the most hardened Obama sceptic would find it hard not to be moved by the victory speech in Grant Park, Chicago. I'm predicting a big win for Obama in 2012 as the two factors that could have worked against him in 2008 - race and inexperience - have been surpassed, and he meets a Republican Party at the end of the 40-year Nixon-Reagan Revolution and in its long, dark night of the soul.

2. The Rudd Government's apology to the Stolen Generations

At last, an Australian Prime Minister does the right thing about a historic wrong. Its hard to believe we spent a decade arguing over the importance of this.

3. The Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony

OK, so the Torch Relays were controversial, and China's human rights record is pretty iffy. But the world wasn't looking at Beijing in 2008 to understand the National People's Congress or discern the inner workings of the SARFT. They wanted a spectacle, and got it. Opening with 2008 drummers with traditional instruments, this was the gold standard of Olympic opening ceremonies. And aside from the dodgy yachting venue at Qingdao and the ongoing pollution problems, the Games themselves went pretty smoothly

4. Matthew Mitcham's diving gold medal

An unexpected gold medal win for Australia, and Matthew Mitcham thanked his boyfriend, his parents, and his coach, in that order. Quite a change from the traumas faced by gay athletes such as the US diver Greg Louganis in the 80s, and the sort of signal of change that may have more impact in the longer term on human rights in China than battles over the Olympic torch relay.

5. Radiohead "In Rainbows"

This came out on the Net in 2007, but the CD was an 08 release (just!). At a time when the album as format may be on its death bed (see Guns 'n' Roses "Chinese Democracy" lowlight #8 below), Radiohead released a beautifully seamless album that synthesises their mid 90s feel for a catchy hook with their late 90s/early 00s avant-gardism into a mix that is the more impressive the more you listen to it. The worthy successor to "OK Computer", which may have been the album of the 1990s.

6. Julia Gillard

A polarising choice perhaps, but one that has to be made. After admirably keeping her cool on Channel Nine when Labor won in November 07, she is the best Parliamentary performer on the Labor side since Paul Keating, and is particularly good when she tears into the myths of Costellology. She has always looked comfortable in the big chair whenever Kevin 007 has jetted off again to advise the Bolivian Government on medium-term monetary policy targeting.

7. Nate Silver's 'Five-Thirty-Eight' US election blog

Transferring a knowledge of baseball statistics to election prediction in the fantastically complicated US electoral college system, Nate Silver's blog had three great innovations that lifted it above the pack: (1) a real understanding of statistical probability (e.g. if John McCain didn;t win Pennsylvania, he had a 3 in 10,000 chance of victory); (2) gauging the momentum of each campaign by photographing which offices still had the lights on in swing districts at 7pm (McCain's didn't; Obama's did); and (3) profiling the voting propensities of each state through indicators such as the ratio of Wal-Marts to Starbucks (high in Kansas, low in Oregon).

8. Manly thumping the Melbourne Storm 54-0 in the NRL Grand Final

More controversial than Julia Gillard at #6, this was an amazing vindication of a side that was nearly down and out after the Super League fiasco (remember the Northern Eagles!). One for my late father, who wore the slings and arrows of being a Manly fan with pride all his life, even if it probably annoyed the Rees NSW Labor government (see lowlight #5 below).

9. Season Six of The Sopranos

OK, this happened in 2007, but due to the unbelieveably crappy programming of Channel Nine (very lucky not to make the Lowlights Top 10 themselves, although I haven't seen Richard Wilkins NYE party show yet), I saw it in 2008. Serial televsiion as a medium for epic storytelling. James Gandolfini as Shakespearean hero-villain in a polyester shirt. Can talk therapy cure a sociopath? I think not.

10. Shane Warne: The Musical

I say this not having seen the show, but it seems a great resolution through live theatre of one of the great socio-cultural divides of Australian society. Every summer, Australia would divide in two. There were those who demanded harsh retribution for Shane's every personal misdemeanor as they objected in principle to his oafish occupation of the Australian public sphere, and wanted the national conversation to turn back to Radio National, Writers' Festivals or constitutional reform. And then there were those who revelled in Shane's outre displays of public bad behaviour, as he stood in for a number of other things the RN/Writers' Festival crowd disliked - SUVs, plasma TVs, alcopops, text messaging and, more generally, sports people being taken as barometers of the national psyche. Anyway, after Shane's gone, Ricky Ponting thinks that captaining a cricket team is like being CEO of a corporation, and look where we are now.

Lowlights of 2008

1. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC)

The GFC bundles a bunch of lowlights together, from the Bush Administration's handling of it in the US, the tanking of super funds (meaning that jobs in universities will remain hard to get for at least another five years), Iceland going bankrupt - and perhaps California next - and perhaps one million unemployed in Australia in 2009. One positive has been the return in a big way of Keynesian economics, which tends to work with the grain of parties of the left.

2. Telstra's no-show for the National Broadband Network bid

The idea that you get the money anyway even if you don't do the paperwork is not the experience of people who deal with Centrelink, Medicare or the Australian Research Council, and the idea that Telstra could just poo-pooh the whole notion of competitive bidding for a multi-billion contract for delivery of a service of vital national importance was indicative of just how adrift and insular the company has become under Trujillo and McGaughie. The probability that all of this will go through the courts in 2009 - which will involve a lot more time and paperwork than submitting a bid proposal for NBN would have done - is staggering, and inadvertently points to the merits of separating the network and retail functions of Telstra.

3. Robert Mugabe's presidency in Zimbabwe

A truly appalling situation, that deserves a particular dishonourable mention for former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who could have put a stop to this madness in May, and who has blemished the idea of anti-colonial solidarity forever by providing cover for this deranged tyrant.

4. The Federal Opposition

Being in Opposition after eleven years in government can;t be a great situation, but the Federal Liberal-National parties made extraordinarily heavy weather of it over 2008, making the Rudd government look considerably better than it actually is. At one point it looked like the balme could be pinned on Brendan "Emo Man" Nelson, as he would get ever more worked up and overwrought in public about the fate of truck drivers, Bundy & Coke drinkers, "ute men" (thanks Glenn Milne), and people who owned ten-year-old Toyota Taragos. But the period since Malcolm Turnbull came in has been just as ragged, despite the fact that he is a more obvious looking Opposition leader than Brendan Nelson was, with the various attempts to mug Treasury secretary Ken Henry in public and Nationals' leader Warren Truss describing the Federal government' economic stimulus package as "bulldust" being indicative of the quality of the contribution coming from the Opposition front bench. As someone who periodically finds myself listening to the Senate in the car, I can say that it is worse live than it comes across as through the media.

5. The NSW state Labor government

Cross-city tunnel, electricity privatisation saga, State Labor Conference, Iemma and Costa resigning, Reba Meagher leaving her driver at the car as she went home with an ex-Channel 7 journo, Matt Brown's 'pants-off' tenure as Police Minister ... the fun never stops, and may not stop for another 2 1/2 years. Nathan Rees and Eric Roozendahl proved to the financial markets how tough they were to eb with the budget by abolishing free school bus passes, and then proved they are listening to the electorate by backing down on the policy a month later (yeah, the electorate were going to celebrate the end of free bus travel for school kids). The Premier State: dazed and confused.

6. Corey Worthington

If you are going to do something stupid in Australia, do it in January. You can get condemned for it not just by A Current Affair, but by the Victorian Premier, the Police Commissioner, and the Police Minister. I'm surprised that Kevin didn't chime in.

7. Sports stars in rehab

I do genuinely appreciate the decisions made by Ben Cousins, Wayne Carey, Andrew Johns etc. to face up (eventually, after getting caught out) to personal drink and drug demons, but they have generated a cottage industry around them as well as a book publishing phenomenon that suggests they have taken over from the ever popular "Rock stars in rehab" genre.

8. Guns 'n' Roses "Chinese Democracy"

Fifteen years in the making. Out with Slash, in with Buckethead. Straight to the remainder bins. Sorry Axl, its Welcome to the Wal-Mart Stacking Shelves (or perhaps the kitchen at KFC).

9. Britain's display at the Beijing Olympics Closing Ceremony

Red London double decker bus offloads Jimmy Page, who plays "Whole Lotta Love". I'm surprised he didn't stop off for a carton of milk and a pack of ciggies on the way.

10. Mandatory Internet filtering

Symbolic policy and pointless pandering to the Christian lobby by the Rudd government at its worst. Will hopefully be the first policy to fall over in 2009. Special dishonourable mention to Professor Clive Hamilton, who co-edited a book in 2007 titled "Silencing Dissent", and seems to spend much of his public life trying to silence dissent with him. As The Who said in 1970: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. We won't get fooled again.

And a fabulous 2009 to all of you.

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