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Australia In 2015: Why We Feel Better About Nothing Changing

Over the past 12 months we haven't fixed our national problems, but we did a great job of pretending to.
December 2, 2015, 10:20pm

Illustration by Michael Dockery

In Australia, we're all very busy and short-attention-somethinged people, and so we like to summarise years with an umbrella theme for easy reference. 2012 was "the year of misogyny". 2013 was "the adults are back in charge". 2014 was "enchantment under the sea". And 2015?

If you had "cosmetic surgery", then you may collect your winnings.

2015 was not about fixing problems, but papering over them so it seemed as if they weren't there. Nothing substantial has changed, and yet the mood across the country, as well as both sides of the binary political divide, seems raised. We all feel a whole lot better about everything, don't we?

"Everything will change", he promised the Australian people. Nothing will change, he promised his party.

The most significant sort-of-change occurred when Malcolm Turnbull snatched the Prime Ministership from Tony Abbott less than two years after Abbott had got the job. A wave of relief swept the nation, with everyone apparently convinced this would usher in a whole new raft of policies. And yet, even with the progressive climate-change-believing-in, gay-marriage-supporting, convinced-the-moon-is-not-a-space-monster-here-to-eat-us Malcolm Turnbull taking over the decidedly un-progressive Liberal Party, he had to do a lot to convince the people who put him there that he wouldn't be bringing his radical agenda to the more "classic" Liberal party room. Everything will change, he promised the Australian people. Nothing will change, he promised his party.

As a result, there was no significant shift in policy. The future plebiscite on gay marriage remains in place. We continue to keep children in detention off-shore. The NBN is still a disaster.

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So why exactly did we feel like things had improved?

Primarily, we seemed pleased that Turnbull could at least string together a sentence. When Malcolm took to the mic, there was no Greco-Roman wrestling match with words, there was no repetition of a rote phrase that had nothing to do with the question being asked. Malcolm could do talking! He could engage with ideas! And despite the fact that he traditionally rambles far more than he needs to, he more than makes up for that by swinging smart-guy glasses around in his hand while doing so.

And so we felt better. The cosmetic surgery worked.

The Knights and Dames controversy played a big part in bringing down Abbott, particularly when he chose to finally reward the under-represented Prince Philip. It was an absurd moment: bestowing a made-up honour to an overly-ennobled figurehead from another country who represents a bygone era of Australia. This was entirely emblematic of Abbott's worldview, and the fact that he was more widely mocked for this than any of his other policies spoke to our preoccupation with the surface.

Turnbull quickly got rid of the Knights and Dames program, and everyone cheered and laughed at how outmoded it had been. Finally, the symbol of outdated policies was gone, if not the policies themselves.

But the politicians are convinced they're making big changes to the country. In his farewell speech, former Treasurer Joe Hockey amazingly cited his own "The age of entitlement is over" speech from 2012 as the most influential speech of the last 20 years. Watching him attempt to shore up his legacy by praising the policies that saw his own party boot him out was a particularly sad moment. So sad that new Treasurer Scott Morrison, in a rare display of compassion, decided not to deliver his big "The age of 'the age of entitlement is over' is over" speech.

The government knows that appearance is what's important.

Australian politics in 2015 was also largely defined by Speaker of the House Bronwyn Bishop, whose ultra-partisan approach to her traditionally-impartial position caused the Liberal Party to actually purchase the rights to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to avoid a copyright lawsuit. In a moment of foreshadowing beyond even JK Rowling, Bishop was also summarily removed. Her replacement, Tony Smith, has done his best to course correct, bringing the dignity of Parliamentary Question Time from "Holy Shit, This Is The Worst Thing I've Ever Seen, Aren't These People Supposed To Be Adults?" to "Holy Shit, This Is The Worst Thing I've Ever Seen, Actually, Come To Think Of It, It Used To Be Worse With Bronny In Charge, So I Guess This Is Slightly Better, But Even So".

The government knows that appearance is what's important. The phrase "stop the boats" may have stopped, but the sentiment hasn't. Asylum seekers continue to be imprisoned off-shore, with island nations making it impossible for reporters to discover what is going on. Unless you're NewsCorp's Chris Kenny, of course; the fiercely pro-Coalition columnist whose Border Control advocacy did not go unnoticed by the Nauruan government. What happened to the boats at sea has also been classed an "operational matter", which is code for "we can literally decide to not tell you stuff that makes us look even a little bad, suckers".

It's the superficial details that have defined us in 2015, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Let's look at the flip side for a moment. What if all of these seemingly inconsequential details do actually matter? What if the cosmetics play a part? We know that seeing a female Prime Minister or a black President can greatly inspire groups who are often excluded from power, regardless of the political leanings of the person in charge.

No longer having a Prime Minister who repeatedly parrots "Stop the boats" as an answer to every question, or who thinks that "not being green" is a joke everyone can get behind, makes a difference the overall tenor of the country. Not having a Speaker of the House playing obvious favourites, or airtime being given to awarding foreign dignitaries, can arguably lift the mood of the nation.

And that summarises 2015: nothing changed, but we all feel slightly better about it. Follow Lee on Twitter