Year in review: Disasters, political upheaval, killings... and a wedding

By Kathy Marks

A tree is seen uprooted in the resort town of North Mission Beach, Australia in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi. Photo / NZ Herald
A tree is seen uprooted in the resort town of North Mission Beach, Australia in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi. Photo / NZ Herald

In Australia, 2011 was a year where natural disasters were almost matched by political turmoil, and where the quiet dignity of a couple who lost their 13-year-old son in dreadful circumstances stood out amid the brouhaha over royal and celebrity visits.

It was a year in which the final act of the Melbourne underworld saga was played out as serial murder was being committed in the Sydney suburbs.

Australia lost the Ashes and some of its best-loved figures, including painter Margaret Olley, but won the Tour de France, the US Open and a Nobel prize.

Several Australian icons took a battering. Beer-maker Fosters was taken over by the London brewing giant SAB Miller, the national airline Qantas was widely panned for grounding its worldwide fleet during an industrial dispute and Rupert Murdoch, the News Ltd chairman, was supplanted as Australia's wealthiest businessman by iron ore magnate Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest.

The wrath of nature dominated the start of the year, when the worst floods in Queensland's history swamped much of the state, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and claiming more than a dozen lives in the Lockyer Valley, west of Brisbane, before inundating the city itself. A fortnight later, powerful Cyclone Yasi bore down on north Queensland, but thanks to a last-minute swerve avoided heavily populated areas.

Victoria, too, had severe floods in early 2011; on the other side of the country, more than 70 homes were destroyed in the Perth Hills by a bushfire started by sparks from an angle-grinder.

Western Australia also ended the year fighting fire - a controlled burn that got away in Margaret River, wiping out more than 40 properties.

The calm resolve of Queensland Premier Anna Bligh in the face of calamity won her many plaudits, and stood in contrast to Julia Gillard's more pedestrian response.

It was something of an annus horribilis for the Prime Minister, who plumbed new depths of unpopularity and endured near-constant rumblings of a possible leadership challenge, focused on her predecessor, Kevin Rudd.

Gillard, who declared 2011 her "year of decision and delivery", did push through several significant pieces of legislation, including laws establishing a carbon tax and plain packaging for tobacco. But the toxic issue of asylum-seekers dogged her without respite - the Government was forced to abandon offshore processing after the High Court overturned plans for a "refugee swap" with Malaysia.

Flood-ravaged areas received a morale boost when Prince William flew out to meet victims shortly before marrying Catherine Middleton.

He was followed to Australia by his grandmother, the Queen, who opened the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth in October, and by President Barack Obama, who announced an expanded United States military presence which would station thousands of Marines in Darwin.

The Dalai Lama also visited, as did US reality TV star Kim Kardashian, fresh from announcing her divorce from pro basketball player Kris Humphries. Kardashian dried her tears long enough to launch a new handbag range, earning herself a spot on an Immigration Department watchlist - she entered the country on a tourist visa.

Melbourne underworld matriarch Judy Moran was jailed for 26 years for ordering the murder of her brother-in-law, Des Moran.

Two crimes committed in Sydney shocked the nation - a fire at a nursing home which killed 11 residents and allegedly set by a nurse, Roger Dean, and the imprisonment of schoolgirl Madeleine Pulver, who had a fake collar bomb strapped to her neck by an alleged extortionist, Paul Peters.

Pulver escaped unharmed, if traumatised. For Denise and Bruce Morcombe, whose son, Daniel, disappeared eight years ago, 2011 brought some closure but no end to their grief. Daniel's body was found, in bushland in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, and a 41-year-old Perth man was charged with his abduction and murder.

The Australian military had a torrid year, losing 11 soldiers in Afghanistan and enduring a series of scandals including the jailing of a senior Navy officer for repeatedly spanking a young female sailor.

It was also announced that women will be allowed to serve in combat roles within five years.

Australians mourned the deaths of, among others, 110-year-old British-born Claude Choules, the last known World War I combat veteran, Lionel Rose, the Aboriginal world champion boxer, and Aboriginal rugby league legend Arthur Beetson.

Celebrity-watchers lapped up the news that Shane Warne and Liz Hurley are to wed, while sports fans celebrated Cadel Evans' Tour de France victory and Samantha Stosur's US Open win.

And Professor Brian Schmidt, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, won the Nobel prize for physics.

- NZ Herald

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