When we look back upon this decade, who are the Australians who will be forever etched into our memory? As Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Don Dunstan and Shane Gould were to the 1970s? As Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Lindy Chamberlain and Paul Hogan were to the 80s?
The 2010s were a decade that began with Julian Assange and Wikileaks releasing a quarter of a million US diplomatic cables, Standard & Poor’s downgrading Greece’s sovereign credit rating to junk and China overtaking Japan as the world’s second largest economy. Here in Australia, Julia Gillard took out a sitting prime minister, and Cyclone Yasi took out the nation’s banana crop, driving inflation to 3.5 per cent.
Ten years on and Assange is in custody. Greece is still in the Eurozone, but Britain is leaving the EU. China’s economy, once you’ve accounted for purchasing power parity, is bigger than the US. Gillard is friends with Rihanna and inflation can’t even reach two per cent.
The last 10 years were shaped by two things that happened shortly before it began; the invention of the iPhone in 2007, and the global credit crunch of 2008. The hangover from the latter lingers still, despite all the pick-me-ups proffered by central banks. The former turbo-charged the pace at which technology is upending the established order and sucking many of us down a wormhole of narcotic narcissism. Little wonder so many of us are reaching for the benzodiazepines.
In Australia the decade will best be remembered for its lively experiment in parliamentary democracy, where MPs, rather than voters, decided who would be prime minister of the country. It’s been a decade marked by battles over climate change and the future of energy, of gay marriage and #metoo. We’re all becoming more woke. And Millennials are worried their dreams of home ownership are toast (with smashed avocado).
And now we’re on the cusp of the 2020s, which at the very least brings with it a proper nickname for the decade. But before it roars into life, let’s look at 10 Australians, who, in this newspaper’s view, helped to define the past 10 years. Yes, they’re mostly pale and male: that’s proving hard to shift. But each will be remembered well after the last espresso martini, or negroni, or pour over coffee is served and the selfie sticks are folded away.
It isn’t just that Mike Cannon-Brookes and his co-founder Scott Farquhar have built the idiosyncratic $43 billion New York Stock Exchange-listed Atlassian. Or that he’s become a SWOT mentor to the boards of old line companies such as Telstra and ANZ on tech disruption. Or that he’s channelled some of his fortune into risky investments in laboratory grown meat, automated vehicles and clean energy. It’s not even that he helped bring about Tesla founder Elon Musk’s “world’s biggest battery” in South Australia.
On top of co-founding the country’s most successful homegrown software business, Cannon-Brookes makes the list of unforgettable Australians of the last decade because he was willing to tackle, in F-bombing style, the biggest policy black hole in Australian politics – energy and climate change. With total disregard for the Canberra blowback that makes other business folk choose their words carefully, Cannon-Brookes used his fame to tell the public – more memorably than others – that the nation was headed in the wrong direction but with the right policies could be a renewable energy superpower.
Then he put his clout and cash into an eyepopping project – Sun Cable – to realise the vision. It remains to be seen if exporting solar and battery power to Singapore in vast quantities is viable. But public debate is much improved thanks to his efforts, renewable energy is expanding inexorably and even policy is inching forward.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce started the decade as the ultimate hard man of business and ended it as a virtual hero in a new field loosely called corporate activism.
Joyce’s decision to shut down the entire airline in October 2011 – as a part of a strategy to break the power base of key unions, reset the Qantas cost base and restore profitability to international operations – was deeply divisive.
In hindsight, it proved to be a master stroke. Qantas shares, which were trading at $1 each in the wake of the shutdown, have soared over the past nine years to a record high in November of $7.34.
While managing the turnaround in profitability, which delivered Joyce a $24 million pay packet in 2018, the board backed him in using the corporate resources of the company to advocate in favour of social change, including same sex marriage.
The jury is still out on whether Joyce has pushed Qantas into a new paradigm beyond the volatile aviation cycle. But outstanding financial performance has earned him the right to lead the company through its 100th anniversary in 2020.
In a decade where entrepreneurs are feted, and where the greatest wealth has been made by those who disrupted powerful incumbents, Andrew Forrest has been a very 2010s business leader.
Having broken Rio Tinto and BHP’s duopoly over exporting iron ore in 2008, the founder and chairman of Fortescue Metals Group began the decade as the most convincing face of the mining industry’s battle against the then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s mining tax.
In 2012 the High Court threw out ASIC’s long-running allegations that he had misled investors. A year later, he and his wife Nicola became the first Australians to sign Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, committing to give away most of their wealth. The only other Australian to join them so far is Len Ainsworth.
Perhaps it’s little wonder the Forrests are so generous. At the start of the decade, Andrew Forrest’s personal wealth was estimated to be $4.2 billion. As at mid-December 2019, his stake in FMG was worth $11.3 billion.
After becoming the nation’s first female prime minister in June 2010, Julia Gillard’s place in Australian history was always assured. But her legacy, with its various shades of grey, is one we’ll be debating well into the future.
When Labor MPs panicked over Kevin Rudd’s loss of popularity, Gillard took the opportunity presented by the party’s factional warlords to topple an elected prime minister, sparking a decade of turmoil in Australian political leadership. Two months later, Labor was left clinging to minority government following the election and Gillard’s prime ministership never really had a chance to flourish.
A combination of Rudd’s white-anting, Tony Abbott’s ferocious obstructionism, gender-based attacks and her own political missteps, left Gillard permanently under siege, paving the way for Rudd to take revenge on his former deputy three years later.
Remarkably, against this backdrop of instability, Gillard maintained a busy policy agenda, striking deals to deliver extra schools and hospital funding to the states, legislating a carbon price and mining tax and initiating the royal commission into child sex abuse. In the final months of her prime ministership, she established the National Disability Insurance Scheme. But perhaps she will be most remembered for the 15 minutes she spent at the despatch box putting Tony Abbott firmly in his place.
If anyone was born to be opposition leader, it was Tony Abbott. From the moment he became leader of the Liberal Party in 2009, until the moment he was booted out of his seat of Warringah in 2019, federal politics descended into a self-destructive cycle that saw five prime ministers cast aside by their colleagues. Abbott won the leadership after harnessing climate change scepticism to defeat Malcolm Turnbull by just one vote, and embarked on a crusade against Gillard’s carbon and mining taxes (both of which he repealed when in government).
After winning a thumping victory in the 2013 “stop-the-boats” election, he presided over a government that ended handouts to the car industry and made a priority of signing free trade deals with China, Japan and South Korea. His attempt to give Australia a dose of tough fiscal medicine at the 2014 budget crippled his prime ministership, costing him public and party-room support. Days after awarding Prince Phillip a knighthood in January 2015, Abbott faced a spill motion. By September, he was dumped in favour of Turnbull.
He promised to bow out graciously, insisting there would be “no sniping, no wrecking” but instead set out to annihilate Turnbull’s leadership. Revenge was served, somewhat tepid, if not cold, when Turnbull was replaced by Morrison in 2018. Yet Abbott was only briefly able to savour the moment; losing his safe Liberal seat in the election of 2019.
The former investment banker, who barrelled onto the political scene as a republican advocate, moved into the top job in 2015 promising economic leadership. He famously declared it had never been a more exciting time to be Australian but eventually fell victim to the cycle of political instability that marked the decade.
It might never have been. Back in 2009, after he was forced from the Liberal Party leadership, Turnbull considered quitting politics. But convinced to stay, he served as Communications Minister in Abbott’s government before staging a successful challenge for leader and PM in 2015. A narrow election victory followed a year later.
In government, Turnbull took a more muscular stance on China, kick-started a high-profile innovation program and legislated for same-sex marriage. But he failed to deliver on the 2016 election promise of company tax cuts and suffered from the chaotic politics of his national energy guarantee policy.
He was brought down by a full-scale insurgency inside his own party largely orchestrated by his nemesis, Tony Abbott, and fronted by home affairs minister Peter Dutton. The coup resulted in Turnbull being replaced by Scott Morrison in August 2018. He is poised to soon publish his own version of events, a memoir titled A Bigger Picture.
As the first small ‘l’ Liberal to lead the party, Turnbull often talked about its broad church but was unable to bring the congregation together.
Having sat as a justice of the High Court for the first half of the decade, and then slipping into obscurity for two years after he was succeeded by his wife Michelle Gordon in mid-2015, Kenneth Hayne was out of the blocks rather late when it comes to making this list. But he looms large as the person, more than any other, identified with the transformation of bank bashing into bank thrashing.
Hayne took centre stage when he was recruited by then-PM Turnbull in December 2017 for an urgent assignment – to conduct a royal commission into misconduct in the financial services industry. It was a political fix, but Hayne brought what had been missing from the umpteen previous inquiries into the big bad banks. With a knack for droll summaries of the evidence of those in the docks – “Charging premiums for life insurance to someone who is dead, that’s the position, isn’t it?” – Hayne earned standing ovations. AMP imploded, the leadership of NAB committed harikari, and “fee for no service” entered the lexicon.
Court actions mopping up the mess will run for years. But perhaps his greatest legacy is dealing the judiciary back into the game. When faith in politics, business, and religion have all crumbled, the courts seem to be untouched. May one thousand royal commissions bloom.
When Hobart’s Lord Mayor Ron Christie in June 2018 said he wanted to “put the brakes” on David Walsh, he probably thought he was on safe ground. Walsh had just offended conservative Hobartians by installing giant upside-down crucifixes along the city’s waterfront.
A year earlier he sparked protests from vegetarians over slaughtering a bull and using its blood in a dance performance. And yet five months later, the Lord Mayor was booted from office. Walsh, meanwhile, is pushing even harder on the accelerator.
Walsh’s Mona museum opened in 2011, and Tasmania is still wondering what hit it. The gallery swiftly became the second most visited tourist attraction and by 2015 the economic data was detecting a tourist-led pick up in the state economy, which is now growing at double the national average.
An Antipodean example of the ‘Bilbao effect’, Mona has led the NSW and Victorian governments to fund massive new art galleries to house contemporary art. But can a publicly funded, bureaucrat-run gallery be as successful as one that is unencumbered by stakeholders and entirely funded by gambling wins? In an era when everyone seems worried about causing offence, Walsh serves up a hungered-for, devil-may-care libertarianism.
In 1999 the Matildas, Australia’s women’s national soccer team, posed nude for a calendar to drum up interest. At the close of this decade the team have just signed a deal for equal pay, and first among equals is Sam Kerr.
Since joining the team as a 15-year-old in 2009, Kerr’s rise has been stratospheric. The all-time leading goalscorer in both the Australian and American leagues, who captained the Matildas to the last 16 of the 2019 World Cup, was recently the subject of a bidding war between the top European clubs. Famous for her celebratory backflips, she ended up signing a two-and-a-half-year deal with Chelsea FC, reportedly worth around $2 million, making her one of the highest earning female footballers in the world.
Kerr is at the forefront of a surge in popularity of women’s sport. The Women’s Big Bash League in cricket and the Women’s Australian Rules Football league have attracted large audiences, sponsorship dollars and broadcast revenue of a scale that was unthinkable in the 80s and 90s. Alongside Ellyse Perry, who has represented her country in both soccer and cricket, and world no. 1 tennis player Ash Barty, Kerr is among the high-profile sporting stars leading this charge. When her Matildas played against, and beat, Chile in November in Sydney they attracted a record crowd of 20,000. That’s more than attended the most recent home game for the Socceroos.
For a man who began his Test cricket career as a leg spin bowler in 2010, Steve Smith is an unlikely person to end the decade as the best batsman since Donald Bradman and the player who has, in an Australian context at least, defined the game. Smith’s 7072 Test runs at an average of 63.14 were embellished by big scores when his team needed them. By 26 the unorthodox, idiosyncratic player had Australia’s second-most important job – Test captain.
But in March 2018 it all went wrong. #Sandpapergate, as it became known, was an episode whose televised images were burned into the national memory. An Australian cricketer sandpapering a ball. A captain trying to cover it up. Then Smith crying uncontrollably at the airport, a 12-month playing ban, a two-year leadership ban and blizzard of social media hate. It was the catalyst for an examination of Australia’s sporting culture, and whether it should be win at all costs. At Cricket Australia, both the chairman and CEO were soon gone.
Like Greg Chappell and the underarm delivery, we’ll never forget Smith’s role in #Sandpapergate. After almost single-handedly retaining The Ashes in 2019, his redemption as a batsman is already complete. Whether he will again be captain is perhaps the greatest test of Australia’s willingness to forgive a winner anything. You wouldn’t bet against it.
With contributions from Tony Boyd, Ben Potter, Andrew Burke, Andrew Tillett, Tom McIlroy, James Eyers and Brad Thompson
Matthew DrummondAFR Magazine editorMatthew Drummond edits AFR Magazine, the Financial Review’s premium monthly inserted magazine which covers business, politics, fashion, design, food and wine as well as being the home of the Rich List, the Young Rich list and the Power lists. Before editing AFR Magazine, Matthew edited the Financial Review’s Saturday newspaper, AFR Weekend. He has also worked at the Sydney Opera House and has practiced competition law. Connect with Matthew on Twitter. Email Matthew at [email protected]