2001 marked the halfway point of 20 years of continuous economic growth in Australia. In Sydney, the median house price was $322,500, a loaf of bread cost $2.30 and a dozen eggs $2.90. Best of all, a kilo of rump steak cost just $12.50. It wasn’t just the tragedy and attacks of 9/11 that marked 2001 out as a year that not only began a new century but changed what seemed like “everything”. From refugee policy in Australia to a speeded-up sense of fragmentation. After nearly two decades the word “disruption” is now pervasive. After a successful career as a publisher, Phillipa McGuiness chanced her hand as author with her first book The Year That Everything Changed – 2001. A year in a book and, on Tuesday 26 June 2018, Phillipa McGuinness addressed The Sydney Institute to explain how it all happened.
THE YEAR THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
Thank you for the invitation to speak here tonight. Standing in a tower named after our first Governor prompts me to acknowledge the original inhabitants of this land, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to elders past and present.
I know I’m in good company as a Sydney Institute speaker, not least because many of my own authors have spoken here, including Cath Bishop about business women in colonial Sydney only last week. As with so many things, I have experienced as a publisher turned author, it’s interesting to find the shoe on the other foot.
For the next 30 minutes I’m going to talk about how I came to write The Year Everything Changed 2001, why I structured it the way I did, what I discovered as I wrote it and why I argue that the world did indeed change in 2001. The book covers a lot of ground, as indeed will this talk. Of course, you will get a much better sense of what that ground is, how it shifts and how I go about carving pieces of it out from reading the book itself than you will from me talking about it tonight. But I hope what follows will be both a taster and an evocative reminder of some of the things that happened in the year that was 2001 and what it was like to be there.
what follows will be both a taster and an evocative reminder of some of the things that happened in the year that was 2001 and what it was like to be there
Early in 2014, I went to a conference to honour historian Professor Alan Atkinson at the ANU in Canberra. I was there in my role as the publisher of the third volume of Alan’s landmark trilogy The Europeans in Australia and because I had negotiated to republish the first two volumes, which had been out of print for some time. The collective noun for historians is an argumentation, so I found myself in a lecture theatre in Canberra seated in a row in the middle of just that, an argumentation, listening to many of the historians present talking about the books they had written and published for the Bicentennial celebrations in 1988.
They referred to these books as “slice histories”. These books took a particular year as a snapshot and wove a narrative around it. I had one of the books they were referring to on my shelf at home Australians 1838. Other volumes followed, covering a single year every 50 years – Australians 1888 and 1938, for example. This got me thinking about the publishing conceit that takes a particular year, usually what we might call a blockbuster year – 1492 or 1776 or 1939 – and uses it as a narrative device, both revisiting what happened and drawing out themes to determine what it all meant.
I started thinking about more recent years that seemed packed with momentous events. Years of shifts that felt seismic, even as they were happening. 1989 is a big one, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Not to mention the so-called “end of history” that all these supposedly symbolised. 1989 certainly sprung to mind, but I quickly settled on 2001.
1989 certainly sprung to mind, but I quickly settled on 2001.
I began to list things that happened that year. 9/11 was the most obvious event. There are few incidents when the majority of people can match a day month and year to that particular event, let alone recall – often with what we might think of as sense memory – exactly where they were at the very moment they watched passenger aeroplanes fly into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.
My off-the-top-of-the-head list of 2001 events grew quickly:
- Tampa, the Norwegian freighter that rescued a boatload of asylum seekers and became a household word almost overnight. Not to mention shorthand for controversy, for divisive debates and policies in regard to refugees.
- The re-election of John Howard in November in a charged election that pundits – and probably the voters themselves – had assumed for most of the year that Kim Beazley would win.
- The inauguration of George W. Bush as US President in January, an election that many American voters saw as illegitimate.
- The continuation of what seemed like never-ending war in Afghanistan, but now American and Australian forces were involved in fighting the Taliban.
The re-election of John Howard in November in a charged election that pundits – and probably the voters themselves – had assumed for most of the year that Kim Beazley would win.
I confess that as I made this list I didn’t recall the collapse of Ansett, HIH, OneTel or the American energy company Enron that year. I probably never knew that Wikipedia had launched early in 2001 but later was pleased to discover that it had, not least when I met a young Wikipedian. Similarly, I didn’t remember that Steve Jobs launched the iPod in 2001 nor that it was named after the pod doors that the computer Hal refused to open in the film 2001 A Space Odyssey. In my book, I argue that the iPod was the precursor to the smart phones we now carry with us at all times that have so changed the way we live. We are now in a world where our communication with each other happens via screens.
My job as a publisher is to find authors to write books. At this point as I sat in the ANU lecture theatre making a list, my thoughts would no doubt have been poised to head down a path of thinking about which potential writers I might to talk about writing this history of 2001, with a plan of signing them up to do so. Then I remembered, not that I ever forget, the personal tragedy my family experienced that year. At the full term of my pregnancy my son Daniel was stillborn. We buried him in the lawn cemetery in Singapore on New Year’s Eve, the last day of 2001.
Then I remembered, not that I ever forget, the personal tragedy my family experienced that year.
In that moment I resolved to write the book myself. A decision that was, in fact, terrifying and exhilarating at once. I knew I could write – publishing hundreds of other books had been a great lesson in what to do and what not to do – but I certainly didn’t think of myself as a writer. I knew I wouldn’t write a dispassionate academic account but something more discursive and, I hoped, engaging. I also knew that the book had to blend the personal with the public and the political.
I had some ambivalence about making myself a subject in the history I was writing, but knew my own story would be a relatively small part of a year packed with stories. I knew I wanted to write about big political figures – Bush, Blair, bin Laden, Berlusconi – but also everyday people. Some of those I discovered through my interviews made the book even more enjoyable to research and write, as we’ll see.
I knew I wanted to write about big political figures – Bush, Blair, bin Laden, Berlusconi – but also everyday people.
The contract I signed to write the book with Penguin Random House (not my own employer) had this as the title/subtitle combo: 2001 – The Year Everything Changed? Question mark. The publisher in me knew that the question mark was a bit of a downer. For better or worse, readers respond to something authoritative with a clearly expressed opinions that come down on one side or the other. But the fledgling historian in me wanted to keep the question mark. As I launched into research and writing, I didn’t know the answer to my question of inquiry and wanted to keep an open mind. But, spoiler alert, not too far into my research I dropped the question mark. I did this for reasons that, as I’ll explain, emerged from what was genuine enquiry.
But first, I want to talk about my approach to research. It was in some ways random and highly systematic in others. I say random, because I saw everyone I crossed paths with as a potential source. Except for any children who may be among us, we were all there. Even my wonderful thirty-year-old editor, in high school at the time, remembered being called out of bed by her mum to sit up and watch Sandra Sully’s coverage of what would become known as “9/11” on Channel 10. Like all of us, she had a sense that history was being made. So, my wide networks of friends, family, authors, colleagues and acquaintances led me to all kinds of introductions, which came with their own insights and observations.Even my wonderful thirty-year-old editor, in high school at the time, remembered being called out of bed by her mum to sit up and watch Sandra Sully’s coverage of what would become known as “9/11” on Channel 10.
Even my wonderful thirty-year-old editor, in high school at the time, remembered being called out of bed by her mum to sit up and watch Sandra Sully’s coverage of what would become known as “9/11” on Channel 10.
I received many of these stories unprompted. I would answer in response to someone’s question asking what my book was about that “it was a history of the year 2001”. Nine out of 10 people would launch immediately into a story about where they were on 9/11. To mention but one example of many, it turned out that one of these people I found myself talking to was at a function at my son’s high school. He didn’t watch this catastrophe on screen but in person because he worked nearby, on Wall Street. One recollection of his, that I find very poignant, ended up in the book.
But most of my research was more systematic than random conversations. I knew I wanted to interview former prime minister John Howard and the then-Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley. So, I did. I didn’t expect that I would spend hundreds of hours sitting in the State Library of NSW going through newspapers, but I did. One Australian newspaper for each day of the year. I used microfilm so I could see the way the articles were presented on the page, the order they appeared and the photographs that accompanied them. It’s also worth noting that not every article from every newspaper gets digitised, for reasons to do with administration rather than censorship or copyright. I did this forensic newspaper work at the suggestion of historian Mark McKenna and it was brilliant advice. Newspapers were so much more extensive then, packed with so many display advertisements and columns of classifieds that revisiting them in their entirety felt like spending time with historical relics in more ways than one.
I did this forensic newspaper work at the suggestion of historian Mark McKenna and it was brilliant advice.
Doing this meant I could immerse myself in the moods and textures of 2001 and try and recreate them on the page. I would read a week of The Australian and then switch to The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald or the Herald Sun to mix it up and make sure I was reading various views and perspectives. I also read many overseas newspapers, particularly the New York Times, essential for a book like mine that doesn’t only take an Australian perspective. Indeed, for most of 2001 I myself was living in Singapore.
This approach also meant that I came across stories covered at length in the pages of our newspapers that I might not have picked up otherwise on if my research approach had been less granular. (Not that the book claims to be comprehensive – that would be impossible. It is no almanac) There are thousands of examples of less-obvious stories that I might point to, but one struck me so deeply that I ended up writing about it in my chapter on demography.
AIDS was very big news in 2001 to a degree I had forgotten. The Australian newspapers devoted thousands of words to the crisis, which in 2001 was the number one cause of death by infectious disease in the developing world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. In the West, thanks to public health programs and treatment advances the virus was largely under control. Indeed, I quote Professor David Cooper, Director of the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology in Sydney (he died in March this year) who said, “I don’t think there has been a disease in history which in such a short time has seen the development of treatments so quickly and so successfully.”
AIDS was very big news in 2001 to a degree I had forgotten.
One central strand of the anti-globalisation protests that swept the world in 2001, notably in Genoa in Italy, was directed at drug companies. Protesters sought to make the anti-retroviral drugs that treat AIDS cheaper for sufferers in developing countries. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan convened a special general assembly session in June 2001 to confront the AIDS crisis. He called for a “war on AIDS”. Months later of course the phrase “war on terror” would become something we heard at least daily. But it’s worth recalling that late in 2001 Kofi Annan and the UN were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in part for their efforts in fighting HIV/AIDS.
Months later of course the phrase “war on terror” would become something we heard at least daily.
I also think many have forgotten the impact of the collapse of Ansett. This is in part because it happened at the same time as 9/11. For weeks from the middle of September 2001 the newspapers had all their regular pages, plus wraparound supplements about the terror attacks in New York and Washington that ran to thousands of words, often within a single edition of the paper. The sheer volume of material on the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon and the backgrounds of the hijackers, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden that ran in the newspapers, on television and radio, and in the fledgling internet over those months is extraordinary. As you can imagine, this volume of material made writing about 9/11 somewhat overwhelming.
Ansett went into administration and its planes were grounded on 14 September. The press conference that Prime Minister Howard held at the Willard Hotel in Washington just before smoke started rising from the Pentagon was primarily about troubles with Ansett. It was also about the Federal Court’s decision to let the refugees on board the Tampa land on Australian soil, a decision that was promptly overturned. The collapse of this airline, though not entirely unexpected, had a psychic shock on Australians. It added to the sense that everything was falling apart. There was a dedicated supplement devoted to covering the Ansett fallout in the broadsheet papers (particularly The Australian) for weeks following its collapse.
The collapse of this airline, though not entirely unexpected, had a psychic shock on Australians. It added to the sense that everything was falling apart.
For Ansett was a prestigious airline with a long and illustrious history. Its passengers were devastated and not just because they were going to lose all their Golden Wing air miles. Thousands of Australian travellers were stranded in airports across Australia when the fleet was grounded. By coincidence, at the same time thousands of international travellers were stranded themselves because the whole of the US had become a no-fly zone.
I found it moving and eye-opening talking to former Ansett employees. They still refer to themselves and each other as being part of the ‘Ansett family’ and many stay connected through Facebook groups. Some even have reunions on cruises where they wear their old uniforms!
I’ve talked briefly here about two subjects I tackle in the book – the global AIDS crisis and the collapse of Ansett. I’ve mentioned in passing some of the other stories I tell in the book, though I haven’t referred to the Centenary of Federation, the history wars for which the opening of the National Museum of Australia in Canberra opened a new front, the death of Don Bradman or the rise of two new presidents with an awful lot in common in Southeast Asia, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Megawati Sukarnoputri. How do I organise all this material?
The book is chronological and thematic. I didn’t want it to be a timeline or almanac – it’s narrative history not a chronological assembly of facts. So its twelve chapters for the twelve months of the year are broadly thematic. They are devoted to commemoration, identity, celebrity, technology, religion, money, war, politics and much in between. Both September and December essentially focus on a single day each – one that I did decide changed the whole world and another that changed my world.
The book is chronological and thematic. I didn’t want it to be a timeline or almanac – it’s narrative history not a chronological assembly of facts.
So why did the book become called The Year Everything Changed at all, let alone with no question mark? I aimed to build a case for this throughout the book. The relaxed complacency at the start of the year, when most ordinary people were not too bothered about the Centenary of Federation is in marked contrast to the end of the year. By then we have become fearful. Fearful about al Qaeda terrorist attacks, as we check in on the status of terror threats on Fox News, not knowing if there will be more attacks, worrying about whether the US Forces and their allies have managed to take Kandahar in the south of Aghanistan, when Osama bin Laden might be found, what the source of the anthrax scare is. Indeed in the conclusion, fear is one of the three areas I posit that reveal that everything did change. I write that the Cold War may have been over, but that September 11 rebooted our imaginations.
Polarisation is another change. I argue that we became more polarised, possibly less so in Australia than in the US where their president proclaimed “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists”. Our own prime minister announced at the Liberal Party’s 2001 campaign launch “We will decided who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”, a proclamation that worked as a highly effective, if unofficial, election slogan. In the book I note that polarisation can be codified and argue that the US Patriot Act was an example of this. The American Civil Liberties Union stated that it turned citizens into suspects. And not only during security screening queues at airports.
I argue that we became more polarised, possibly less so in Australia than in the US where their president proclaimed “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists”.
Time, and the way it sped up, is the third broad way I argue that everything changed at the turn of the millennium. The pace and the high stakes of the 2001 story I tell pick up from August with Tampa, 9/11, the Australian election, the war in Afghanistan. And I point out that digital technology and the explosion and fragmentation of news platforms sped up the news stories and general information we are bombarded with.
Hard as it may be to believe, in light of what happened that year and what has happened since, I end the book on an optimistic note. I’m a realist but point out that the lessons of 2001, particularly those that relate to democracy, tolerance and resilience demand to be revisited and remembered by all of us.
Hard as it may be to believe, in light of what happened that year and what has happened since, I end the book on an optimistic note.