2021 was a year of shocks and foreboding … but highlights, too

Victoria was under a declared state of emergency, trying to control its latest surge of coronavirus infections, when an earthquake shook much of the state on September 22.

There was little serious damage, but many wondered what more could their nerves withstand in this long year of anxiety.

Australians had hoped 2021 would be a major improvement on 2020, when the world was plunged into its biggest pandemic in a century. Australia’s border slammed shut against the world, the federation shattered into a patchwork of separate state approaches and Victoria, suffering hundreds of COVID-19 deaths, spent 120 days in its major lockdown of the year.

But 2021 even began ominously.

With a cluster of coronavirus cases seeping south from Sydney during the Christmas-New Year period, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews ordered the state’s border closed, starting at 11.59pm on New Year’s Day.

By Valentine’s Day, Victorians were ordered into the first of a series of lockdowns that tested the patience and endurance of millions thoughout much of the year.

By October 4, Melbourne was declared the world’s most locked-down city, with a cumulative 245 days in limbo since the pandemic began.

And yet, 2021 was a year of highlights, too, particularly in sport, the Australian standby when spirits require a lift.

Ash Barty won Wimbledon in early July.

Within weeks, Australians renewed their love affair with its Olympians. That the Tokyo Olympics even occurred seemed a triumph as the Delta variant surged.

Australia won 46 medals, placing the nation sixth in the world. Our Paralympians followed up with 80 medals: eighth in the world.

The Demons’ Grand Final win in Perth broke a 57-year drought.Credit:Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images

A few days after the earthquake, the Melbourne Demons won their first AFL grand final in 57 years, though the big game had to be played in Perth,the second year in a row the match was not at the MCG.

It was a year of mixed fortunes for Premier Daniel Andrews.

In March, at a holiday home in Sorrento, on the Mornington Peninsula, he slipped and fell down a flight of stairs, breaking several ribs and a vertebra. He was off work for three months, during which conspiracy theorists and political opponents circulated unfounded theories about the cause of his injuries.

Despite his travails and ongoing protests at COVID-19 restrictions, Andrews and his government retained significant support among voters, according to published polls.

The Coalition continued to struggle, even after the former Liberal leader Matthew Guy toppled Michael O’Brien to regain the leadership in September.

Victoria’s Matthew Guy emerged victorious over former opposition leader Michael O’Brien. Credit:The Age

A survey by Resolve Political Monitor conducted for The Age in October showed Labor’s primary vote had fallen from 43 to 38 per cent since the last state election – most of the loss going to independents – but was still 4 points ahead of the LNP’s 34 per cent.

By November, a Roy Morgan poll showed Labor leading the LNP 58-42 on a two-party preferred basis – almost unchanged since the last election.

Guy appointed his friend Tim Smith as shadow attorney-general. It ended in disaster when Smith crashed his car in late October and returned a blood-alcohol reading of 0.131. He announced in November he would quit state parliament at the next election.

In the federal parliament, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government slipped behind Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party in published polls as Morrison suffered a number of setbacks.

His troubles began early. Having named sexual assault survivor Grace Tame the Australian of the Year in January, Morrison found himself assailed for much of the year by Ms Tame and other women for failing to tackle a culture of sexual assault and bullying in parliament. The culture was revealed in a major report ordered by Morrison in February and released in late November.

The PM also took hits over the slow roll-out of sorely needed coronavirus vaccines during the first two-thirds of the year. The project became so vexxed the Macquarie Dictionary chose the term “strollout” as its word of the year.

Morrison tried to defend the situation by declaring the vaccination program was “not a race, not a competition”, causing passions to flare among those clamouring for the jab.

And yet, by the last few months of the year, Morrison was able to boast that Australians were among the most vaccinated people in the world, with the lowest death rate.

But the political embarrassments kept mounting. Morrison’s former Attorney-General, Christian Porter – once considered a potential future Prime Minister – announced on December 1 he would quit politics at the election.

Having sued the ABC for defamation after he identified himself as the subject of a report concerning historic sexual assault allegations – which he denied – Porter refused to reveal who was helping him pay, through a “blind trust”, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills.

In October, the PM was labelled a liar by French President Emmanuel Macron at the G20 in Rome, having broken a $90 billion contract for French submarines. Morrison argued he was putting the national interest first by joining the AUKUS defence agreement with the UK and US to give Australia its first nuclear-powered submarines.

As parliament wound up for the year, Education Minister Alan Tudge was forced to stand aside pending an inquiry into claims by his former lover and staffer that he had been violent. He vehemently denied the allegations.

There were ructions in the Liberals’ Coalition partner, The Nationals, too. In June, Barnaby Joyce – having resigned as Nationals leader in 2018 after revelations of an extramarital affair and a sexual harassment complaint that he strongly denied – marshalled enough support to overthrow Michael McCormack and return as leader.

But where there were new beginnings, there were also endings.

Popular NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian resigned on October 1 after the Independent Commission Against Corruption revealed she was being investigated. She later left parliament altogether and has said she has no intention of returning to politics.

Australia’s role in the 20-year war in Afghanistan finally ended.

The decision to pull out, led by the United States, caused a swift takeover of the country by the Taliban. Australia agreed to an initial 3000 humanitarian spots for Afghan refugees, but many were left behind.

On April 9, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, died at 99, leaving his Queen a widow.

Days before, Australia’s queen of fashion, Carla Zampatti, died after falling down stairs in Sydney.

On April 16, Andrew Peacock, former leader of the Liberal Party, died in the US, aged 82.

On October 30, the Australian television and showbiz world lost Bert Newton, aged 83. He was granted a state funeral.

Former Victorian governor Sir James Gobbo, who died on November 7, aged 90, received a state funeral soon after.

Australia’s most acclaimed Indigenous actor, David Gulpilil, died on November 30, four years after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He was 68.

The pandemic continued to create headlines, morphing in the last weeks of the year into a new infectious variant of coronavirus known as Omicron.

Even as the vast majority of Australians sought the reassurance of vaccines, anti-vax protesters turned out in thousands on city streets.

The protests, featuring at one point a mobile gallows and fluttering Donald Trump flags, reminded some observers of one of the most ominous events of the year.

Jake Angeli, on the right, known as the Q Shaman, quickly became the face of the Capitol riots.Credit:AP

On January 6, hundreds of protesters stormed the US Capitol building in Washington DC. Inflamed by Trump’s baseless claim that he had won the 2020 Presidential election, the protesters hunted for “treasonous” members of Congress. Five people died in the attempted insurrection.

No such level of violence reached Australian streets, though police in Melbourne fired rubber pellets during running street battles in September.

Elsewhere, police sought to bring healing to those touched by the unthinkable.

In NSW, police renewed their seven-year search for missing child William Tyrell, expressing confidence that this time, they would solve the mystery. At the time of writing, no breakthrough had been announced.

Australia needed, in this long year of distress, at least one great happy ending.

Cleo Smith reunited with step-father Jake Gliddon and mother Ellie Smith.Credit:Getty

It came when Cleo Smith, aged 4, was found alive on November 4 in the WA town of Carnarvon, 18 days after she disappeared from her parents’ tent at a remote camping site.

As an officer carried the child from a home where she was found playing with dolls in a midnight raid, WA Police Detective Senior Sergeant Cameron Blaine asked her name.

“My name is Cleo,” she said. “Hello Cleo”, the officers replied.

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