It says something about the potent ubiquity of Covid-19 that it continues for most to be the only topic in town as we begin the third year of its influence. Should old illnesses be forgot as the year begins? If only it were possible! “Close contact”, “rapid antigen test”, “PCR testing” ,“Omicron” and “asymptomatic” have, in recent weeks, become additions to our Covid Lexicon. We have moved from a world of “iso” to “iso if you only have to” and keep being “boosted”.
Looking back on 2021 it is remarkable how many national and international concerns became secondary to the management of the virus.
Not even an unprecedented earthquake in Melbourne in late September could usurp the unending run of pandemic news and information for more than an afternoon.
I can vividly recall the quake. Never having experienced one, I thought that near to the end of a term of on-line teaching I might have been swaying in frustration and exhaustion, but no it was not me, but the building. I wish I understood Physics better to make sense of how a tall concrete building could shift with the suppleness of plasticine.
Tremors. They are what earthquakes cause. They are quintessentially unsettling. The earth moves beneath your feet and stability is lost. Gravity’s hold is challenged. If there are enough tremors permanent fault lines form: fissures and chasms emerge beneath the earth’s surface that are capable of rumbling again.
There are some tremors that are exhilarating to experience, like those I felt at the Melbourne Cricket Ground last week. In the space of the last and first hour of an evening’s and morning’s play, a debutante fast bowler for Australia, Scott Boland, took an unprecedented 6 wickets for 7 runs, generating a response from the crowd that had “the ground rocking.” As a result of his heroics, Australia retained the Ashes before an eruption of Covid infections in both teams that threatens to change the complexion of the final two tests.
However, most tremors are unnerving. Hence, the word, tremulous: “characterised or affected by trembling, shaking or quivering; fearful, timid, vacillating”- Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.
For both politics and tennis, tremulous is my adjective of choice as I survey the start of 2022.
It is often observed that “politics is downstream of culture”.
If that is the case, then we should be fearful of some of the cultural fault lines that have emerged in Western societies.
There is a growing fault line between the governed and our governors in the world’s democracies. Scepticism about the worth of the democratic process may well have become endemic. Post baby-boomer generations are reluctant to seek political office. Last week, I spoke to the mother of a friend of mine who will be standing as an independent for one of the Australian Capital Territory’s two Senate seats at the next Federal election. My friend is learned, highly thoughtful. In short, everything you might want in a Senator. Yet her mother was almost embarrassed to admit her daughter was considering a political career: “Who would want to be a politician?” was her refrain.
In America, the average age of a member of the House of Representatives is 59. Its Speaker, Nancy Pelosi is 81. The average age of an American Senator is 65. Republican Senate Leader, Mitch McConnell is 79. If we do have a Biden v Trump rematch in the 2024 Presidential election, we will see Biden, just short of 84 seeking a second term against the spritely Donald, by then a mere 78.
It is right to be tremulous about the waning influence of America. Sixty years ago, America was prepared to “pay any price and bear any burden” to guarantee liberty. Now it is a nation divided against itself, with a vaccination rate of just over 60%. Its Congress cannot pass the President’s economic stimulus package. National debt is close to 29 TRILLION dollars, a trillion being a thousand billion dollars. Against such a backdrop could anyone be certain that America would defend Taiwan from invasion? How can we forget this year’s supine and calamitous withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan? Phone calls to Putin asking the Russians to restrain from annexing Ukraine seem to be Biden’s only affordable strategy.
Nearly a year on from the riots at the Capitol, the American political process remains an imbroglio, delivering little confidence to its nation. The outrageous burning of Canberra’s Old Parliament House- which, in my opinion has received remarkably little media coverage- last week is a reminder of the shrill contempt that many in the West have towards democratic institutions, once considered indispensable to our common good. It is an insidious manifestation of the ‘chicken and the egg’ question: the less effective our parliaments are perceived to be the less they attract the membership they require.
In Australia, the economic and social tremors felt by a generation without confident expectations of home ownership and permanent employment are fuelling a lack of commitment to the political process: “what have they- they being the amorphous mass of ‘all the same’ politicians -ever done for me?” And in keeping with the spirit of AUKUS and ANZUS alliances, Australia with only 7.79% of America’s population is on its way to our first trillion dollar debt in 2030.
Things could be as bad as they are in South Africa. The nation now has an unemployment rate of 45%. Its Gross Domestic Product has shrunk by 7%. The recent death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, aged 90, is symbolic of the rainbow nation’s failure to achieve its post-apartheid goals.
In America, the shameful and appalling death of George Floyd led to absurd hostility towards police forces. “Defund Police” movements emerged and governments responded, slashing funding to police forces.
2021 ended in America with its major cities enduring some of the most significant increases in violent crime in decades. Join the dots. A willingness to believe the worst about all American police agencies has led to greater loss of rights and protections for all Americans. The rule of law cannot prevail if laws cannot be enforced.
Nor can the rule of law be upheld when so many seem willing to abandon the presumption of innocence in the quest for their version of the truth. There are too many Australians whose lives have been destroyed by the hurling of unproven, sometimes unprovable, allegations by self-appointed judges of public opinion supported by uncontrollable commentary on social media.
The gender wars have been equally shrill and counter-productive. At the same function where I defended the virtues of running for public office, conversation turned to the gaps between rich and poor in America. A guest commented that he could not believe how the wealthiest suburbs of American cities often abutted the most deprived urban areas. I contended that one of Australia’s greatest qualities is that it has very few, if any, locales which could be considered “no-go areas” in the way that some districts of Johannesburg, Chicago, Washington, New York et al are considered. Another guest said, “Tell that to any woman in Australia and they would not believe you.”
I’m sorry, but when did Australia’s enviable tolerance and acceptance disappear in a fearful cloud? In a ranking of countries where all citizens feel safest in public, I suspect Australia would rank amongst the highest. Since when did Australia’s creditable record of emancipating and recognising the equality of women become taken over by rancorous condemnation of all our attitudes and institutions as sexist and rotten?
It seems that for too many, not being perfect means that we are mostly imperfect. Memo to the accusers. You cannot turn the clock to Year Zero. A quest for corrective vengeance runs the risk of eclipsing perspectives infused with nuance. I am not an expert of the science of climate change, but I believe that reducing the debate to an Animal Farm like “oil, gas and coal BAD, solar, wind and hydrogen GOOD”, is unlikely to provide all the answers.
The same simplistic rancour affects the debate about indigenous reconciliation. We were promised a referendum to grant constitutional recognition for indigenous Australians five years ago. Since then, simplistic sloganeering and extreme propositions for change have stymied the debate. Again, what is the result of such arch attitudes? No change. Former Prime Ministers have reminded us about the politics of purity: Gough Whitlam commented that only the “impotent are pure” and, more prosaically, John Howard quipped that “70% of a GST is better than no GST at all.”
There are enough absurdities in the world- take for example State governments requiring tourists to obtain Covid tests before visiting within a timeframe which made it impossible for people to obtain their results when required- without civil discourse being reduced to absurdly simple and unhelpful propositions.
We must not let our inevitable disagreements lead to unnecessary and unfair fault finding about everything and everyone.
In the world of tennis the organisers of the Australian Open have every right to be tremulous as they contemplate late withdrawals and Covid protocols for players and spectators at the forthcoming event. Rafael Nadal has announced that he has recovered from Covid and is on his way. Still no word from Djokovic. His orchestrated silence shows a lack of respect for the tournament and the game itself. And he wonders why he does not win over the hearts and minds of most! We know Federer will not be here. Nadal’s participation prevents this year’s Open being the first since 2000 when not one of the ‘Big 3’ was present.
Even the reach of Covid has not swept away everything we have come to know and love! Just let's remember to talk about these things once the worst of the pandemic is done!
Happy New Year!