Ed#448: Doctor, Who Can Stop Time?

23 December 2013 Alan Attwood

Ed#448: Doctor, Who Can Stop Time?

I’m sorry, I think a mistake has been made. I have heard loose talk about a new year being imminent; also the suggestion that I must write some words (preferably with a New Year theme) to fill this space. But that can’t be right. The last New Year was surely only a month or so ago. We had a New Year Edition (#422) with a hobbit on the cover, as portrayed by artist Michael Weldon. I wrote about the discovery of the Higgs boson – the so-called ‘God Particle’ – and managed not to make any bison jokes. Now the physicists behind that discovery have claimed their Nobel Prize in Stockholm and Weldon is back with another fine illustration, which has a Dr Who/Tardis theme that would suggest, yes, another 12 months really have rolled around. Ridiculous.

We think of years in terms of events: what happened in the world; what happened in our own, personal, worlds. The latter is private; the former out there on the public record. How will 2013 be remembered? Perhaps as the year one pope (Benedict) retired, which surprised everyone, and another (Francis) was elected. Pope Francis then shocked everyone by championing charity, compassion and humility. Time magazine named him its Person of the Year “for pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world’s largest church to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgement with mercy”. The irony here is that, apart from the positive impression made by its new leader, the Catholic Church had a dreadful year. This was especially so in Australia, where the issue of sexual abuse by clergy, and the failure of authorities to deal with it appropriately, received unprecedented coverage – almost as much as federal politics, for which 2013 was an especially febrile year. It was the year of three prime ministers: first Julia Gillard, then Kevin Rudd (who, having been rolled by Gillard in 2010, pulled off his reverse coup) and finally Tony Abbott, who led the Liberal/National Party coalition to victory in September’s federal election. It is too early to judge his administration, other than to suggest it is far easier to oppose than govern. But it does seem safe to say that the widespread disillusionment with politics and politicians caused by the acrimony and pettiness in Canberra in recent years will take a great deal of hard work to obviate. The Prime Minister – any prime minister – should aim high and think big.

In this regard, Nelson Mandela makes a fine role model. My hunch already is that the death of Mandela – aged 95, in December – will, in time, be regarded as the most significant event of 2013. Not just his death, which in itself was not unexpected, but the assessments it sparked and the coming-together of disparate people for his memorial service. In many ways, the handshake at that service between the leaders of the USA and Cuba, countries divided by decades of embargoes and enmity, reflected Mandela’s message of reconciliation.

He is watching me as I write this. On my office wall I have a campaign poster for the African National Congress, featuring a picture of Mandela, from South Africa’s first free election campaign in 1994. I was in the country to report on that election, and was lucky enough to see and hear Mandela as he campaigned to become South Africa’s first black leader. Two things linger in my memory from that time: first, his ability to control a vast crowd with a word, a pause or a gesture; second, the way he would wander away from his security people if someone or something caught his attention. He had a powerful sense of self but also, more importantly, a sense of his country as a whole. His legacy will last into next year…and far beyond.

Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue.