Gallery: What made headlines in 2012

EVERY year has its high and lows, its triumphs and tragedies, its heroes and villains and 2012 was no exception.

Here are some of the big - and slightly strange - stories of 2012.

THE END OF AN ERA

WHILE the closure of the maternity ward at Warrnambool's St John of God Hospital after 73 years of bringing babies into the world was the end of an era, the biggest finale to make our pages was that of Community Connections. After facing a seemingly endless stream of court cases, accusations, audits, investigations, funding withdrawals, and often intense debate on The Standard's website, the social welfare agency eventually pulled the plug on June 30.

It's unlikely anyone shed any tears for the agency's demise, but there was certainly deep sadness at the loss of some beloved characters from our region. This year, we bid farewell to, among others, former Hamilton writer-producer Andrew Wight (who worked with James Cameron on the films Avatar and Sanctum), Deakin Uni footy stalwart Chris "Big Red" Jennings, Merrivale senior coach Stephen "Jack" Kelson, Warrnambool's much-loved accordion-playing busker Wim Van Der Mark, and Noorat farmer Niel Black.

TRAGEDY

IN 2011, The Standard joined newspapers around the country in the Talk The Toll Down campaign. Sadly, south-west roads continued to claim lives in 2012, starting with the New Year's Day car accident that killed Hexham father Troy Jenkins, 35. Almost 12 months later, the driver Charlie Scott and Mr Jenkins' family would embrace and weep together as the remorseful Scott was handed a three-year suspended sentence in a Warrnambool court. It was a touching reminder that no one means to die on our roads or cause an accident but unless we all take care, we could be the next number on the Talk The Toll Down tally.

There were fatal crashes all across the region, from Penshurst to Cudgee to Coleraine, but few communities were shaken by tragedy quite like Dunkeld. Residents rallied around the parents left devastated by the death of their two young children in a terrifying house fire.

The frailty of life was never far from our pages in 2012 a woman died after falling from the cliffs of Thunder Point, two men died in an accident on an oil rig off Warrnambool's coast, there were mysterious deaths in Coleraine, Dartmoor and Strathdownie, and a simple boat outing turned to tragedy when a couple in their 60s died while their son swam to shore for help.

ENTERTAIN US

THE year started with a visit from INXS, who brought new singer Ciaran Gribbin to perform at the Warrnambool racecourse. By the end of the year, the band had called it a day (much to Gribbin's surprise). A lot can happen in a year in the world of arts and entertainment.

In fact a lot can happen in just two months. Warrnambool's revamped Lighthouse Theatre was reopened in April with a surprise appearance by The Queen (aka Gerry Connolly). In June, the theatre was back in the news when a malfunctioning sprinkler added a surprise twist to a performance by female impersonators The Divine Divas. The sudden indoor downpour forced the audience to be evacuated mid-show but the Divas returned later in the year for a repeat performance, appropriately dubbed "It's Raining Men".

There were no such issues at Fun4Kids, which became the festival where TV talent show contestants go after their seasons end. Timomatic, Cosentino, Jessica Mauboy and Reece Mastin all got their starts on such programs ... and the kids loved it, making this year's event the biggest Fun4Kids ever. Punters were also unanimous in proclaiming Camperdown's inaugural Robert Burns Scottish Festival a success, and ditto for the Port Fairy Folk Festival.

The public was slightly more divided over Warrnambool's public art. Some scoffed at the fibreglass replica of one of the iconic 12 Apostles that was set up on the Civic Green in March, others loved it. But at least it got people talking and thinking about art. There seemed to be less resistance to the two new pieces of public art dubbed The Guardians that arrived on the green thanks to a generous $100,000 donation from Melboune-based philanthropist Professor Barbara van Ernst, so maybe the anti-art crowd is mellowing out.

And just to show that the Warrnambool arts scene isn't all about abstract sculptures and watercolour landscapes, the WAG brought an Australian exclusive to the city to cap off a great year the sci-fi prop exhibition Invasion is expected to be a big tourist drawcard over the summer.

THE WEIRD AND THE WONDERFUL

IT took more than a decade, but Bushfield's Graham Wylie finally took to the high seas in January in his homemade replica Portuguese caravel in what was most likely the first time such a vessel has ever graced Warrnambool's coast, no matter what certain crackpot historians say.

The ocean off Warrnambool also offered up an unlikely tourist attraction in July when a dead humpback whale washed up near Thunder Point. The gawkers came in droves... and so did the idiots. Soon Warrnambool was attracting the media's negative spotlight, courtesy of some dimwits who thought climbing on top of the whale for a Facebook photo shoot would be a good idea.

Controversy also abounded in Framlingham, where Geoff Clark's pizza oven came under scrutiny, eventually leading to his dismissal from the position of Framlingham Aboriginal Trust administrator and leaving Clark "unemployed, bankrupt and probably unemployable". At least he still had his pizza oven.

Camperdown would be one of the last places you'd expect to connect to a porno film, but the town's residents were entranced by its very own X-rated scandal in February when a former local appeared in an online porn video with her former high school teacher. The happily-together couple later made TV appearances to hit back at critics, stating that they didn't begin their relationship until two years after the woman had graduated from high school. The moral of the story? Don't post naughty videos online.

One of the local celebrities of the year was Daffy the Duck, who lived a hectic high profile life near the Warrnambool breakwater. Daffy became well known because of its friendliness around humans, which led to it riding on boats in the bay and stealing chips. Then Daffy was "ducknapped" apparently by some well-meaning animal lovers and believed to have been involved in a car accident. The duck is sighted less often these days and is reportedly hanging out at the botanical gardens.

Also seen infrequently these days are big cats, but despite the pressing needs of our education and health systems, the state government decided that panthers and pumas were worth spending money on. The Otways and Grampians abound with tales of such beasts, but the government's study into the validity of these stories found them to be "highly unlikely".

And the world didn't end on December 21, much to the surprise of no one.

CRIME & PUNISHMENT

SIXTEEN fires in the Koroit area including one that burned down a Mailors Flat home had residents on edge throughout the warmer months. The good weather also brought out the idiots, who marred Australia Day in Warrnambool by starting a violent brawl at Lake Pertobe.

Violence was a problem in Portland too, where a man had part of his ear bitten off in a pub fight, stores were held up at knife point, and, in one terrifying night, a man was shot dead.

A chilling tale also emerged in the aftermath of the Port Fairy Folk Festival a man had attempted to kidnap a woman after offering her and her brother a lift home from the festival. The horrifying ordeal which ended when the woman leapt from the moving car resulted in the attempted kidnapper being sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail.

The courts also dealt with one of their own. A Warrnambool Magistrates Court clerk was charged with perverting the course of justice after allegedly tipping off suspected criminals about impending search warrants.

Equally surprising was the case of a $1 million, 148-year-old Allansford homestead that went up in flames. The twist came when the owner was later charged with having paid a man to light the blaze.

But the strangest case of the year was that of the death of a Branxholme man. The coroner's court hearing into how Anthony Mooney died from strychnine poisoning featured tales of tainted sauce bottles, life insurance policies, overseas cruises, and psychic visions. A finding is yet to be released.

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY

THE health of Warrnambool's CBD was repeatedly questioned due to the number of shops that lay empty, but in poorer health was South West TAFE, which was left reeling after the state government's budget cuts looked set to leave an almost $10 million hole in the institution. It was initially announced that 43 jobs and up to 30 courses would go as a result. No wonder the teachers at the south-west's primary and secondary schools were wary of the state government, joining statewide strikes demanding Premier Ted Baillieu live up to his pre-election promise of Victorian teachers being the "best paid" and not introduce performance pay.

But faring worse than teachers were the investors of Banksia Financial Group. The group's collapse left many people including the Warrnambool City Band, pensioners and cancer sufferers expecting to get a small percentage of their original investments back. And all this came in just over a month from Christmas.

Southern Finance investors were also notably nervous, with the institution suspending investors' funds while they negotiated a sale to the Bendigo and Adelaide Bank. Funds were eventually unfrozen on Christmas Eve.

But it wasn't all bad news. Pomborneit and Weerite residents were toasting victory at year's end, with Powercor agreeing to pay $10 million in compensation for the Black Saturday fires.

WHEN DISASTER STRIKES

PORTLAND residents were told to stay indoors in February after a 4000-tonne holding tank began leaking super-heated liquid pitch at the Port of Portland. The spill would keep parts of the port closed for some time. Only months later, the city would witness a massive fire cause $4 million worth of damage to one of its supermarkets. And out to sea, eight people were lucky to escape unharmed from a blazing boat off the coast of Portland in July. A suspected electrical fire forced the six passengers and two crew to leap into the ocean, where they were picked up soon after by two passing boats.

Equally lucky were the six men, including three from Port Fairy, whose yacht sank in rough seas off the coast of Port Campbell in April. They were competing in a Queenscliff-to-Port Fairy ocean race and were saved by the crew of another yacht after spending two-and-a-half hours in the water at night.

Back on land, a $200,000 fire at Flagstaff Hill destroyed the old Examiner newspaper print shop and, ironically, the adjoining fire station at the popular tourist attraction. Fire also reduced Mortlake's fish and chip shop to a pile of ashes and rubble, leaving the new owners devastated.

But the fire that affected the most people was the one contained within Warrnambool's Telstra exchange in November, which plunged the south-west into a communications black hole. Landlines, mobile phones, internet services, EFTPOS, ATMs and even some cash registers were crippled for weeks, causing serious disruptions for businesses, residents and emergency services. Telstra employees worked around the clock to restore the network, but the affects of the fire were still being felt at the end of the year, with some businesses and tourism operators still struggling to recover from the outage and loss of income.

...AND THEN THERE WAS COUNCIL

THERE were municipal elections this year, but they proved less interesting than the regular antics of some of the region's councillors. Jennifer Lowe, then-councillor at Warrnambool City, faced court over financial misdealings, while her council counterpart Peter Hulin received a two-month ban from the Warrnambool City Council chambers for breaching confidentiality. Unrepentant, Cr Hulin described the process as a "joke" and the penalty as a "holiday". It didn't hurt his election prospects he was re-elected later in the year and came out swinging, delivering a provocative speech on day one of his second term.

But the biggest political scandal of the year was "Wilmagate", which threatened to derail Warrnambool's council elections and claim some high-profile scalps in the process. After The Standard inadvertently published a letter under a false name (Ms Wilma Wright) during the election campaign, it emerged that the real letter writer was none other than council CEO Bruce Anson's son. The letter, which disparaged certain councillors, led to the councillors claiming "dirty tricks" were in play. Mr Anson denied wrongdoing and some of those disparaged were still elected to council.

One south-west councillor who didn't make it back to the council table after the elections was former Moyne Shire councillor Bernie Harris, who delivered perhaps the bluntest quote from a councillor in 2012, which landed in a front page story no less. When the developers of the proposed The Sisters wind farm lost their Supreme Court appeal against Moyne Shire, Cr Harris summed it up thusly: "It was a shit planning issue that shouldn't have gone anywhere in the first place." Cr Harris will be sadly missed from Moyne Shire Council.

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