Several weeks ago Time magazine published a special double issue. It was called 1989 and explored how the world changed in that year, two decades ago. It was a remarkable year, when extraordinary, earth shattering events were happening every day.
The magazine drew up a list of what it considered the big events of 1989. It was the year:
- the Berlin Wall fell;
- Russia was transformed by another revolution;
- America won the Cold War and Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history;
- the world wide web was invented;
- people dreaming of a fairer political order were slaughtered in Tiananmen Square;
- FW De Klerk agreed to release Nelson Mandela and apartheid entered its death throes;
- Vietnamese troops withdrew from a devastated Cambodia;
- the Dalai Lama won the Nobel prize;
- a fatwa was declared on Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses;
- oil from the Exxon Valdez’s devastated the Alaskan coast;
- Japan’s invincibility came to a shuddering halt as its economic bubble popped; and
- the first episodes of The Simpsons were broadcast;
It was a year “history was being made so often in so many places that is seemed almost routine”.
Time magazine had a predictable emphasis, some of the things it included were parochially American. But the sentiment was right. Sixty-eight is generally thought to be the year that changed the world, but I am persuaded that the number you get when you turn 68 upside down and flip it over - 89 - is more important in terms of lasting global significance.
As I picked up a copy of the magazine at Brisbane Airport I quickly scanned the table of contents. I knew it was a forlorn and provincial hope, but I was disappointed to see that the completion of the Fitzgerald Report and the end of an old regime in Queensland did not make the list.
It deserved to.
It was one of the truly transformative events in Australian history - one which not only signalled the end of a particular style of corrupt and authoritarian politics and public administration - but one which made a wide range of administrative, social and economic changes possible, both here and elsewhere in Australia.
We are tardy in this country. We are more inclined to remember, even celebrate, failure than success. I don’t know if it is diffidence, embarrassment or some inversion of egalitarianism. All too often we fail to recognise the big transformations that occur as a result of brave people pushing just that bit harder.
There are not many people, who when given a basket full of knotted skeins of wool, keep tugging and pulling, patiently yet determinedly undoing one knot after another, following the thread as it tangles through the mess, until it is all rearranged and packaged in neat bundles. Even fewer provide a plain English instruction manual to ensure that the wool doesn’t get messed up again.
As Tony Fitzgerald has said to me, becoming such a person was a life changing event.
So it is particularly important to honour Tony Fitzgerald and those with him who accepted the unenviable challenge to unravel the complicated and interrelated mess that this state was, two decades ago. It was a mess that had made this state the laughing stock of the nation. It had undermined many of its most talented citizens and sent them scurrying away. It rewarded ignorance and allowed corruption to flourish - all the while, encouraging people to believe they were living in a lotus land, when not so far beneath the surface there was a stinking, muddy quagmire.
This article is based on the author's opening remarks at Griffith University's Inaugural Fitzgerald Lecture on July 29, 2009. The full article can be found at the Griffith Review here (PDF 501KB).
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