Going outside the flags
After the feel good fun of the New Year pyrotechnics, the kind of hangover that could last long into 2009 - and perhaps beyond. Following seventeen years of uninterrupted growth, the Australian economy is battling to stave off recession. After sixteen years of dominance, Australia's cricket team is no longer the envy of the world. After fifteen years of rising visitor numbers, Australian tourism is braced for a once-in-a-quarter-century blip, with international tourist numbers forecast to nosedive by over 4%.
The IMF expects global commodity prices to fall by a staggering 23%, which is obviously terrible news for the all-important mining sector. No wonder the Anglo-Australian mining giant, Rio Tinto, has announced that 14,000 members of its 112,000-strong global workforce will lose their jobs. Japan, Australia's leading export destination, is in recession. Growth in China, Australia's largest trading partner, is expected to fall to a 19-year low.
The Australian government is about to go into deficit, with a recent Treasury report forecasting that tax revenues would fall $40 billion short of the original projections. The collapse of the property market, a rich source of tax revenue, means that all the states, with the single exception of Victoria, are likely to slump into deficit, as well - even resources-rich Western Australia.
Kevin Rudd remains well-liked at home, but his cautious 5% greenhouse emissions target may have dented his popularity abroad. Perhaps he will not strut the global stage with quite the same self-confidence, or, his critics would suggest, quite the same self-righteousness. The economic slowdown has placed unexpected constraints upon his government, which has already impacted its environmental policies and could have a similar impact on his educational programmes (especially the funding of universities).
The sweet and sour reviews and below-par box office figures for Baz Luhrmann's Australia could serve as a leitmotif for the country as a whole. Even the summer weather has been a bit unreliable and dodgy.
For all that, recession is by no means inevitable. Many of the country's leading economists are projecting growth in 2009 - between 1.2% and 1.4%. There's also good news for debt-ridden home owners, with interest rates expected to fall further, from 4.25% to as low as 3% by mid-year.
On other fronts, 2009 could be a year to savour. In cricket, we've got an Ashes series to look forward to, which is unlikely to match the quality of the 2005 vintage but could be equally tense and gripping. There are scores to settle on the upcoming tour of South Africa, as well.
Later this month, the champion cyclist Lance Armstrong will be making his comeback in the Tour Down Under, and perhaps we'll get to see another Federer/Nadal classic at the Australian Open.
Come September Cate Blanchett, will be packing them in Sydney when she plays Blanche Du Bois in Tennessee Williams "A Streetcar Named Desire" and, after a year's absence, the Chaser Boys will be back on ABC (is it possible to construct an argument that's Kevin Rudd's enduring popularity has partly been due to a Chaser-free first year in office?).
Many Australians will no doubt have ushered in the New Year on the beach, hopefully swimming between the flags - those iconic red and yellow markers which indicate where the churning waters are at their safest. But 2009 could well be an outside of the flags sort of year, with many Australians forced out of their comfort zone and subject to forces which are beyond their control. I hope that all of you will manage to keep to your heads above water.