Australia

Bushfires, coronavirus and a recession: these were the events that shaped Australian politics in 2020

Prime Minister Scott Morrison back in March told the nation that 2020 would, for many, be the toughest year of our lives. 

From the black summer of bushfires to a global pandemic and economic crisis – 2020 has tested and challenged Australians in a myriad of ways.

Amid the turmoil, Australia’s political leaders have come under intense scrutiny while trying to navigate the unprecedented challenges. 

These are the moments that defined Australian politics in 2020. 

The prime minister visits Cobargo 

As bushfires tore across Australia’s east coast – the prime minister visited the bushfire-ravaged town of Cobargo, in southeast NSW, on 2 January.

His visit took place around a fortnight after he cut short a controversial family holiday to Hawaii in late December – a trip that he would later apologise for.

Cobargo residents who felt neglected by the federal government met Mr Morrison with cries of anger and heckles of frustration. 

The scenes of a woman and firefighter refusing to shake the prime minister’s hand were seared into the nation’s brain. 

‘We owe it to those we have lost’ 

The visit would reflect wider criticism over the federal government’s response to the bushfires and its climate policy. 

During the summer, 24 million hectares of land were burnt, 33 people killed and over 3,000 homes destroyed.

In response, the government would announce a royal commission to examine failures that exacerbated the bushfire disaster.

“We owe it to those we have lost,” Mr Morrison told parliament on the first sitting day of the year.

“We owe it to those who have fought these fires. We owe it to our children, and the land itself, to learn from the lessons that are necessary.”

The royal commission’s report – released in October – would make 80 recommendations, including addressing the coordination of governments during emergencies and the management of firefighting resources.

Parliament begins with tributes to bushfire victims

‘Not immune but well prepare for virus’

As the bushfire threat faded, it became apparent Australia would soon be facing another nation-shaping crisis. 

The first case of COVID-19 would be reported in Australia on 25 January. 

At that time, the full scale of the health and economic crisis was unimaginable. 

In the weeks and the months that followed, the drastic impact coronavirus would cause in Australia started to become apparent. 

Mr Morrison would in March deliver a rare televised address to the nation, promising Australia had a “clear plan” to deal with the pandemic.  

“I want to assure you and your family tonight, that while Australia cannot and is not immune from this virus, we are well prepared and are well equipped to deal with it,” he said.

“While this is a global health crisis. There are very real and significant economic impacts.” 

The economic toll of lockdowns across Australia would soon be realised, as up to a million Australians lost their jobs and massive queues formed outside Centrelink offices. 

People are seen queuing outside a Centrelink office in Bondi Junction, Sydney.

AAP

‘Stop it’

As the nation grappled with the reality of COVID-19, the prime minister would also be forced to condemn some Australians who had begun hoarding supplies such as toilet paper. 

“Stop hoarding – I can’t be more blunt about it,” Mr Morrison said.

“Stop it. It’s not sensible, it’s not helpful and I’ve got to say it’s been one of the most disappointing things in Australian behaviour in response to this crisis.”

The outbreak also saw Asian Australians experiencing an increase in racially motivated and targeted attacks linked to the coronavirus pandemic.

The prime minister was quick to reject the racial attacks as “reprehensible” and would later tell SBS News that Asian Australians and migrants had led the way during Australia’s initial response to the pandemic.

“It was the Chinese Australian community that actually protected Australia. They led the way and the broader community is now following,” he said.

National cabinet and a Tiktok sensation

The new national cabinet – a body formed to organise Australia’s response to the pandemic – would hold its first meeting on 15 March.

The meetings would soon become a regular event, with Australians tuning into late-night press conferences to receive the latest updates on restrictions designed to combat the virus. 

Some conflicts flared between the political leaders – particularly over the closing down of schools and border restrictions imposed to limit the virus’ spread. 

National cabinet meets for the last time this year in December.

National cabinet meets for the last time this year in December.

AAP

But the press conferences would also bring some more light-hearted moments, such as when Mr Morrison mispronounced the word “barre” when referring to the dance fitness classes. 

Mr Morrison’s clash with the ABC’s chief political correspondent Andrew Probyn would also become a viral sensation on social media platform TikTok.

Calls for a coronavirus inquiry and escalating China tensions  

As the coronavirus pandemic started to intensify, Foreign Minister Marise Payne in April revealed Australia would call for a global inquiry into its origins. 

However, the announcement would prompt fierce backlash and condemnation from the Chinese government. 

China was concerned the inquiry would single them out as responsible for the pandemic, rejecting the push in a move that would soon see relations between the countries hit an all-time low. 

Australians stranded abroad and hotel quarantine

For tens of thousands of Australians overseas, it would be the declaration of quarantine restrictions on returning travellers that would impact their lives most significantly.

The federal government initially urged Australians to consider returning home in March, later imposing new 14-day self-isolation periods for incoming arrivals in hotel quarantine. 

As pressure to take stronger action has mounted, Mr Morrison in September promised to have “as many people home, if not all of them, by Christmas” in an effort to respond to these concerns.

However, there still remains at least 30,000 Australians awaiting their chance to come home. 

Australia has extended its international travel ban until mid-March, meaning overseas holiday plans – with the anticipated exemption of New Zealand –  will also have to remain on hold for now. 

The Ruby Princess and aged care outbreaks

Despite Australia’s relative success in controlling the spread of the virus, the response has not been exempt from mistakes and political fallout.

The departure of passengers from the COVID-infected Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney led to at least 28 deaths and 662 coronavirus cases. 

The incident triggered debate between Commonwealth and NSW authorities over who should have been responsible for the quarantine process.

The heavy impact on residential aged care facilities of coronavirus outbreaks – including during Victoria’s second wave – has also placed renewed pressure on the government to improve severe failings within the sector. 

Australia’s first recession in nearly 30 years 

As the extent of the economic impact of the pandemic took hold, it became evident that coronavirus business shutdowns would see Australia enter its first recession in 29 years. 

This came as the federal government committed $251 billion of support to “cushion the blow” of the crisis. 

The response stayed true to the PM’s marketing background, with the JobKeeper, JobSeeker, JobTrainer and JobMaker programs rolled out to support Australians through the crisis. 

However, this also meant the government’s promise of a “Back in Black” surplus a year earlier had been ruined. 

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced a record $213.7 billion deficit amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. 

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg hands down the budget at Parliament House.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg hands down the budget at Parliament House.

AAP

In a budget update in December, Mr Frydenberg said Australia had begun “rebounding strongly” from the crisis. 

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but there is still a very long way to go in Australia’s economic recovery,” Mr Frydenberg said. 

Welfare boosts and windbacks

Despite significant investment into the JobKeeper and Jobseeker schemes, they have not been without criticism.

The more generous JobKeeper program faced backlash for not including casuals who had worked for a company for less than one-year, meaning many arts and entertainment workers missed out.

Many temporary visa holders – including international students – were left out of the government’s coronavirus support programs and have faced financial hardship during the year. 

There has also been criticism from welfare groups of the decision to begin winding back supports without committing to a permanent increase to the baseline-rate of unemployment benefits.

Political stunts and the first socially-distanced parliament 

Several weeks of federal parliament were delayed over concerns that bringing members and staff to Canberra from across the country risked increasing the spread of the virus.  

The health crisis eventually resulted in the first socially-distanced parliament and virtual questions and answers during Question Time.

The year was also not without its political stunts – one standout was Independent MP Bob Katter dressing as the grim reaper to bring attention to the struggles of the automotive industry in Australia. 

We also discovered Employment Minister Michaela Cash’s deep passion for Indian food after it was suggested Australians should have a “curry for the country” to help reopen small businesses recovering from COVID shutdowns. 

“A ‘curry for the country’ – I love it – I’m going to tell the prime minister that one,” she responded.

Black Lives Matter and Closing the Gap

The Australian government also announced a new Closing the Gap strategy this year, vowing to work with Indigenous Australians to tackle persistent disparities. 

For the first time, the target areas included justice, out-of-home care, suicide, language preservation, housing and land rights.

Meanwhile, one of the most powerful speeches of the year was delivered by Labor Senator Patrick Dodson. 

Senator Dodson urged the government to “stop the rot” on Indigenous incarceration following renewed attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Robodebt settlement

The year also brought some closure to victims of the government’s robodebt debt-recovery program.

The federal government agreed to a settlement worth $1.2 billion over the unlawful scheme, which raised automated debts against welfare recipients.

The decision coming after the government had already been forced to pay back payments that were deemed to be wrongly recovered through the system. 

Afghan war crimes’ inquiry called ‘disturbing and distressing’

A four-year inquiry into grave misconduct by Australian SAS soldiers wrapped-up in 2020.

The Brereton inquiry detailed “credible” evidence of 39 unlawful killings of Afghan civilians or prisoners – alleging 25 soldiers were involved in these incidents. 

Mr Morrison has called the behaviour of a “small number” of soldiers “disturbing and distressing”.

The findings are now also being examined by an independent oversight panel.

Climate ambition under scrutiny

The Australian government also faced renewed pressure this year over climate policy as its international allies began to increase the ambitions of their own targets. 

The United Kingdom, the European Union, Japan, France, South Korea, New Zealand and the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden have all committed to net-zero emissions by 2050. 

Mr Morrison has said he wants to meet this goal “as soon as possible”. 

Australia has now pledged to reach its target under the Paris agreement without using controversial carryover credits from past climate accords.

But Mr Biden’s promise to push for more climate ambition from world leaders means the pressure on Australia is set to continue. 

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