The Year Everything Changed 2001

by Phillipa McGuinness

  • Vintage Books 2018
  • ISBN: 978 0 14378 2414
  • RRP $34.99 (pb)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

How does one condense a year into a book? Not easily. But for publisher Phillipa McGuinness it seems to be just what a publisher needs – a catchy idea, plenty of nostalgia and, if you pick the right year, lots of drama. Curtail the boundaries of the subject to themes and global “issues” and it’s a likely good seller.

The Year Everything Changed 2001 was conceived as a great marketing idea in February 2014 while Phillipa McGuiness was attending a lecture in Canberra at the ANU. Historians at the lecture had been involved in “slice histories” relating to single years to coincide with the Australian Bicentenary in 1988 – thoughts rambling, McGuinness realises, “Such a publishing conceit, so great for marketing… You take a single year and interrogate the bejesus out of it.”

In the end, 2001 stood out for all the obvious dramatic moments of just one day – 9/11. “Settling into the idea, I recalled all the times I’d heard people say ‘Since 2001 …’, using it as a marker before sharing some statistic or trend,” writes McGuinness. The attacks on Manhattan’s Twin Towers in September 2001 were indeed earth shattering and a watershed in history both for the impact on that iconic global city, the manner of the attacks and the implications those attacks presaged for world peace.

But an event – however traumatic and globally important – is not a year. So, The Year Everything Changed 2001 is about much more. Significantly it is also bookended by the tragic mini story of Phillipa and husband Adam’s stillborn baby’s short history – buried in his tiny white coffin on New Year’s Eve 2001 in Singapore.

Capturing a year will undoubtedly be a big research job – as McGuinness makes clear in her widely sourced pan across multiple issues from the tech revolution to the plight of Japan’s Princess Masako to refugee issues surrounding unlawful boat arrivals and the Howard Government’s Pacific Solution, not to mention 9/11 itself and much more.

It is obvious McGuinness has combed through a mountain of documents, interviews, media and so on. After all, a year is a long time to chart. And there are books and news outlets on times before and after to cover as well. Her writing is crisp and absorbing. So absorbing, that McGuinness’ recapture of New York and the 9/11 event is at times too hard to keep reading with the outcome already known so intimately, explored in news media, TV, film, memoir, books and more besides.

Reliving 9/11 and the attacks on New York’s Twin Towers and Washington’s Pentagon and the heroism of the passengers in the fourth plane forced to crash in a field in Pennsylvania, is at moments difficult to bear. But it certainly comes back vividly. And, like her husband and two children who visit Manhattan’s 9/11 Memorial with her in 2016, there is a point where the reader is tempted to leave before it ends.

Set out in chapters that tackle the year month by month, The Year Everything Changed 2001 begs the question that McGuinness herself asks at the end where she asks herself, “It seems conclusive – yes it was a year everything changed – but am I trapped in a simplistic fallacy of my own making?” It’s an obvious rejoinder – no year changes “everything”. But it’s a catchy title for a book.

The month by month chapter design is perhaps the first trap. There is no problem for monthly chapters covering 9/11 (September) or Australia’s (August) Tampa incident where 483 boat people drifting in a sinking boat in the Indian Ocean close to Australian waters were hauled on board a Norwegian merchant tanker on its way to Singapore leading to a huge national and international debate and the incarceration of these boat people, eventually, at Manus Island and Nauru. But managing to make some months fall into the pattern fails.

Some chapters range wherever so that there is a tendency for a lot of the book not to be about 2001 so much as about issues that have been at the forefront of public discussion over two decades and more. It is here where the second trap opens – advocacy begins and reporting and discussion ends. Is this an opinion piece or a genuine look at the events of a year?

Touching on topics such as Indigenous affairs, a Bill of Rights, capitalism, institutional child abuse, multiculturalism, human rights, and similar fashionable issues, McGuinness channels an ABC Q & A groupthink. And, for those who have followed two decades of ABC TV’s national and international discussion, there is a sense of déjà vu and predictability.

The real baddies are George W Bush, John Howard and George Pell (standing next to him at a Sydney street crossing, “I was close to muttering, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’”) while standout heroes are Al Gore (after watching the Twin Towers collapse McGuinness thinks, “I really wished that Al Gore was president.”), the Clintons, Kim Beazley and so on.

There is nothing amiss in a personal expression of bias and McGuinness admits upfront that some of her accounts of the year are “impressionistic”. And they are. But to tackle the BIG issues of the day in overtly slanted arguments rather than canvass all the complications of a situation fairly is a tad disingenuous.

To take a single example try “January: Journey of a Nation”. True, Australia’s excitement at celebrating 100 years of federation on 1 January 2001 was nothing compared to that of Australia Day 1988 to commemorate the bicentenary and the landing of the British and a cargo of convicts and Red Coats to begin a colony at Sydney Cove. 26 January 1988 was a day when the surrounds of Sydney Harbour were swamped by Australians from all states gathered until dark to party and absorb the symbols of their history while the streets beyond lay silent and empty of inhabitants.

Yet, in McGuinness’ account of January 2001 – which is taken up with an examination of Australians’ sense of nationhood and all that – there is an overwhelming spirit of alienation as if there is no intellectual pride or deep sense of identity in the land down under. McGuinness neglects to remind her readers of the bicentenary, its aspirations and celebrations, settling instead for a belittling account of the failure of one day’s centenary commemorations to excite the nation.

Federation itself is left described in Paul Keating’s chip-on-the-shoulder view as “put together by lawyers and businessmen, mostly old forelock-tuggers – people who set us up as a British satellite”. The conclusion is we’ve all been had and so on.

It is not surprising that ordinary Australians have little feeling for the act of federation – it’s a hard nut to crack. No reality TV there. No war of independence, no Boston Tea Party. Yet to judge the achievement of federation in the words of Paul Keating is to have no knowledge of the enormous strides and vision the founding fathers possessed in bringing six competing colonies to an agreement to federate as they did. And, let’s face it, the parties developing a constitution and the framework for a nation could do a lot worse for not having had a few lawyers and businessmen in the group.

Then there is the issue of detention of unlawful arrivals in Australia – evolving out of the August 2001 event of the Tampa. In this chapter, McGuinness is fair in her coverage of the actual happenings and the enormous controversy it inspired. For the record, I wrote one of the first letters published (in The Australian) at the time protesting the government response.

McGuinness, however, at no stage gives any credence to the fact that the Howard Government’s stand in 2001 is better understood nearly two decades later with both Labor and Coalition now supporting a policy of “stopping the boats”. Nor does she admit the unfair accusations made by refugee advocates of the Australian Navy personnel caught up in the fracas. In her chapter “August: A Boat called Tampa”, somehow the Navy’s defence of their actions gets mixed in with criticism of the Howard Government.

Support for the Australian government’s firm stand on unlawful arrivals is not a reflection of racist attitudes in long term Australians. Quite the reverse. Labor introduced mandatory detention under the Keating Government because many migrant Australians, in Labor held seats, wanted their relatives to gain visas to come to Australia. Unlawful arrivals were, to them, simply queue jumpers. None of this is covered by McGuinness.

It is the same with Cardinal George Pell and the issue of institutional child abuse and the Royal Commission (most of which has nothing to do with 2001). But Pell became Archbishop of Sydney in May 2001 so it is a chance to do a chapter on the Catholic Church and child sex abuse – and along the way referring to Islam as “this great faith”.

Having begun with wanting to shout abuse at Pell at a Sydney street crossing (no date), McGuinness proceeds to precis the very complicated history of the Catholic Church and its response to allegations over decades of historic child sexual abuse. There is no doubt this is a huge and confronting issue in institutional matters Down Under – as it has been globally. McGuinness is right to say that Pell has become the “symbol” of the church’s failures in this regard, but she ignores a lot of facts in so doing.

For McGuinness, Pell is guilty of “failures in responding to revelations of abuse” – yet, in 1996, within 6 months of becoming Archbishop of Melbourne, and ahead of any in Australia and across the globe, Pell set up a redress scheme called “The Melbourne Response” (in co-operation with the Victorian Police) to tackle head on the allegations and preside over compensation.

McGuinness, however, gets her dates wrong at this point. She writes that a national Catholic scheme “Towards Healing” was set up in 1996 when it was, in fact, set up in 1997, a year after Pell’s scheme. In doing so, McGuinness asserts that Pell is to be condemned for exempting the state of Victoria from the national scheme to set up his own. Totally false. Pell’s scheme was well and truly in operation by the time the national scheme was established.

After that, McGuinness takes up 60 Minutes’ false assertions that The Melbourne Response “was designed to keep abuse cases out of court”. But it never was. In fact, the Melbourne Catholic church handed over as many cases to the police as they were permitted by complainants – and there were many. The idea was that the cases be pursued to their legal limits – quite possibly in the courts.

All of this suggests that a book about a year – no matter how widely researched – is going to lay traps for the author. No one person can be well versed enough in so much local and global phenomena to get it all right.

For all that, The Year Everything Changed 2001 is as pacey a read as any to be found in prominent journals and newspapers and should sell well. That it channels ABC TV’s Q & A won’t hurt either. Phillipa McGuinness has picked a seller – which, as a publisher, is her job.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History