Shortcuts / 17 December 2020

The Big 2020 Topics

2020 – it was a big one. In our final Squiz Shortcut for the year, we’re aiming to achieve one thing – to catch you up on where some of the big issues are at so you can impress your friends and family over the Christmas break. So we’ll take you through the fall out from the bushfires, where things are at with coronavirus around the world, what’s the latest between Australia and China, how our economy is faring in this year of upheaval and finally, where things landed post-US election. 


At the back end of 2019 and the start of 2020, the extreme heat, prolonged drought and strong winds saw bushfires explode first in northern NSW and Queensland, and eventually in the south of NSW, eastern Victoria and South Australia. In what became known as the Black Summer bushfires, some 24 million hectares of land was burnt, more than 3000 homes were destroyed and three billion animals were killed or displaced. Thirty-three people died, including six Australian firefighters and three American aerial firefighters. Estimates of the national financial impacts say it cost Australia $10 billion.

It was one of the worst seasons on record in a country that’s no stranger to bad bushfire seasons. And from there a debate kicked off about whether there was something unprecedented about the Black Summer fires given the issue of climate change and global warming. And what the Royal Commission heard was that climate change and global warming made things drier and hotter in some areas, particularly on the east coast, and that contributed to the high intensity of some fires. But that’s not a statement you can apply to everything that went down over the season.

Aside from the cause, there was also a lot of debate about the handling of the emergency and how things could be done differently next time. And that’s one of the reasons Morrison set up that Royal Commission – to consider national natural disaster coordination arrangements to see the states, territories and federal bodies – like our defence forces – work better together. And the report handed down at the end of October recommended ways to put something like that in place.

But this summer, it looks like there’s going to be some reprieve with big fires unexpected this year – that’s because La Nina is in town – and we’re already seeing wetter conditions.


At the time of publication, we’re on the way to 73 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 1.6 million deaths. The origin of the virus is still not confirmed, and patient zero might never be found. What researchers say is the person who was the first confirmed case in Wuhan, China had no apparent connection to the wet market that’s been in focus, so there’s no certainty that’s how the virus started. What is certain that Chinese state media’s claims that it could have been someone outside the country’s borders is rubbish.

All that feeds into Australia’s position, and many other nations, that a proper investigation needs to happen because we need to know how a virus, that has disrupted the world, actually started. And it’s only just kicked off. It’s politically sensitive and there’s been a lot of resistance from China. But under an agreement between the World Health Organisation (WHO) and China’s government, 10 overseas experts – including Aussie microbiologist Dominic Dwyer – will assess the research already undertaken by Chinese scientists.

But on a more positive note, vaccination has started to be given to people in the UK, the US, across Russia and China. China’s vaccine is also being distributed to Indonesia as well South American and Middle Eastern nations. Canada and Germany will start soon. As far as where Australia is at, we are aiming to get started in March. The key fact to know is normally a vaccine takes 10 years to develop and some very smart people have done it in less than a year.


Before the pandemic, Australia was already having relationships difficulties with China. But after we led a call for that WHO inquiry to happen, things got very bumpy. And it’s easy to put that down to one of two things, but in November, a dossier of 14 disputes was handed over by the Chinese embassy in Canberra to Nine News. They’re all tensions that have been building up for some time over a range of issues… for example supporting the US in keeping the South China Sea travel routes open and supporting freedoms for Hongkongers, as well as things like banning Huawei from the 5G network in 2018, and blocking Chinese foreign investment deals.

The flow on effects of these disputes has been a lot of heartache for our exporters. This year China has found reasons to restrict and ban trade or whack tariffs on many of our exports. For example if you’re a barley or lobster farmer, winemaker, or timber producer your biggest export market is under threat, if not closed. Doing well though is iron ore which has actually benefited from the crisis because the price keeps going up as things get more and more heated. And it’s a market that seems immune to threat because China needs our iron ore to build its cities.

And not the we can travel anyway but this growing tension has meant the official advice for Australians is now not to travel to China… even our journos were evacuated. The ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith remain at home and Australia has no working journos based in China at the moment. As there’s been no new news on Australian-Chinese academic Yang Hengjun and journalist Cheng Lei who are in detention in China. Both have been accused of spying and with the current friction it doesn’t seem like their release will be anytime soon.

The economy

It’s been a wild year for the economy… Australia’s economy went into a recession for the first time in 29 years and just like that, we were out of it. The coronavirus is a dual health and economic crisis here and around the world. And it created a year of wildly fluctuating data. What the latest Aussie figures showed is our economy grew by 3.3% in the July-September quarter. It’s the largest quarterly increase since 1976. And it came after a 7% contraction in the April to June quarter – the largest quarterly fall on record.

Still, when you look at economic growth over the previous 12 months, it’s down by 3.8%. So I’m not sure anyone is arguing that we’re through the worst of it yet. One of the big issues is unemployment and JobKeeper – Australia’s largest ever stimulus measure costing $100 billion – which did a lot to protect the economy. But that is slated to end in March, and there’s some holding of our collective breath to see what happens then.

But when it comes to unemployment – that was expected to hit a peak of 10% this year but the thinking is it might come in around 7.5%. Which means hundreds of thousands more people stayed in work this year. But for those who lost their jobs, the expectation is that it could take some time for the economy to recover to get people back in work at the same levels seen at the start of the year. Employment is now the benchmark for how the economy’s performing according to the Reserve Bank.

On the global economy, it’s still very closely tied to the coronavirus crisis and in the US and Europe, cases are on the rise. What the OECD says is the recovery will be uneven across countries and sectors and could lead to lasting changes in the world economy. It also points out that countries with effective testing, tracking and a vaccination program that can be distributed rapidly should perform relatively well, but a high degree of uncertainty persists.

US elections

To put it simply, Joe Biden won, and Donald Trump lost. But Trump continues to contest that result as Biden’s team gets ready to transition to power after he and Vice President Kamala Harris are inaugurated on 20 January. But despite this, Bide will become President. The question that’s outstanding is what sort of Congress Biden will face, and that’s important because it will dictate how much of his policy platform he’s able to action.

The Democrats have retained the House of Representatives, so that’s good news for Biden. But the Senate is yet to be decided. There’s 2 run-off elections in the state of Georgia that will decide if the Senate stays in Republican hands – which makes life difficult for Biden – or if it swings the Democrats way. And that’s happening because none of the candidates in the 2 senate races won a required 50% of the vote to secure the spot. Those fascinating races that will happen on 5 January.

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