The political year ended where it began – with a government scorned by a sceptical electorate, and an opposition continuing to face issues of policy credibility.
The almost daily sight and sound out of Canberra, of politicians shouting, name-calling, nay-saying – without a glimmer of grace or class – has been on bright display.
The parliament proved beyond serious argument that it was armed with an ample supply of attention-seeking second-raters.
Our national government survived its precarious hold on office. It limped to the end of a year of "decision and delivery” without public well-wishing.
The alternative government proved it was not an alternative. It was contradictory, inward-looking and without care of its actions.
Interestingly, the year ended also with no change in the leadership of either of the major political parties for the first year since 2004 – although the governing party finished the year talking about its fault lines, foibles and future at a televised national conference that was passionate, open, substantive, grown-up and far distant from the usual contrived political talk-fest.
It was its 46th conference, and maybe one of its more interesting and relevant. The prime minister got her way on the emotionally debated gay marriage issue and on the long-running and seminal argument about uranium sales to the world’s largest democracy, India. It helped cement her authority.
On the year past, ALP supporters will claim that the brave and historic price on carbon is now fact. It was the big nation-defining decision.
They will claim the law-making machinery of the land worked with over 250 pieces of legislation passed. And they will point to steady stewardship of an economy that is the envy of almost any nation at this time, not withstanding nitpicking debate about economic forecasts.
Coalition supporters will claim the opposition succeeded in holding the minority government to exacting account, as well as controlling the direction of political debate. They'll claim also that Julia Gillard was happy to be party to a shabby low-grade deal involving a slippery new Speaker.
Both arguments are true – but irrelevant long term.
The great issues facing this country as the Asia century uncoils were not discussed or dissected in Canberra – issues of national productivity, engagement with regional governments, debate on how our states hold back big nation-building reforms with never-ending political debate about taxation distribution, workforce mobility and so on.
Issues surrounding the management of our ageing population, of planning population growth, of education standards, or of the patently incompetent management of billions of dollars in our defence procurement apparatus, simply slid by.
The point here is that 2011 proved that while Australia’s economic performance may be the envy of the world – along with our relative social cohesion – we are in danger of letting the absurdly short-term political cycle blind us to the big calls that we cannot avoid.
Yes, the setting of a price on carbon was historic and world-leading. And, yes, it will probably be part of the puzzle that may cost a prime minister her job.
But what it really showed was a public cowering behind shrieking tabloid headlines aimed at panic and shock-jock lies. We prefer, generally, to remain cynical rather than open-minded and hopeful.
Will any of this change now that Gillard has a stable majority that should continue until September 2013, thanks to the machinations of conservative politics in Queensland that saw Peter Slipper jump ship – and does it matter anyway?
The early signs are so-so.
For the prime minister, it seems that the current year of policy "detail” will give way to a 2012 year of political "retail”.
Will it be full of more Kylie Minogue moments, shopping centre visits and the obsessions of Canberra insiders, or will it be more sitting behind the desk of the prime minister and thinking and acting with a bold and clear 20-year vision in mind – and avoiding annoying and irrelevant media demands at all cost?
For the opposition leader, his dreams and boasts of being in the Lodge by this Christmas have been scuttled – so what now?
Maybe some "headland speeches” to set out broad direction as some suggest, or even the early release of crafted, costed and intelligent policy alternatives that prove fitness to govern. The "audacity of nope” has a use-by date, and it’s arrived.
What is certain in 2012 is that the national parliament will continue to display the worst in us. That thing called Question Time will remain a disgrace.
What is also certain is that leadership speculation will re-ignite – occasionally in government and fanned by the tabloids, but more frequently in opposition as the polls dominate daily political discourse.
Even yesterday the Sunday tabloids were again running the same old unsourced and speculative world exclusives about a Kevin Rudd challenge. The only difference to previous scoops is that the date has drifted out.
Rudd remains sidelined, and that won’t change a jot. For the opposition, Malcolm Turnbull retains unrequited ambition, and is a class above most of his colleagues – and that won’t change. Expect increasing internal focus on Abbott’s leadership as the core question is privately asked: are we certain he will deliver victory?
There are some in politics who play the game as cricket’s "big bash”. Others – who are smarter – know it’s more akin to a Test match (other than playing the Kiwis).
What matters in the end are astute team selections, planning, pluck, leadership, commitment and long periods of concentration without a constant eye on the scoreboard.
There are still more than two long innings to play in 2012 and 2013 – and anything, given recent history, can still happen.