2020 has been a surreal and horrible year that began in a choke of smoke and ended with a collective sigh of relief as our system of government withstood the challenges of the global pandemic while much of the world buckled.

Around the world the strengths and weaknesses of societies were exposed and the importance of having a functional set of institutions operating in the interests of its citizens was tested in real life.

By any objective measure Australia passed this test, working across partisan divides, following the advice of health experts, taking decisive action to lock down the economy while breaking economic orthodoxies to support those most in need.

But in our final Essential Report of the year, the Australian public is not sugarcoating 2020: it’s been a shitshow. Compared with previous years, the numbers look a bit like the revised budget: seriously in the red.

Thinking about the last 12 months, has it been a good or bad year for each of the following? (NET = gap between good and bad rating)

For the economy, small business and the average Australian it’s been an absolute shocker.

But there are some shifts here that belie a more upbeat story, particularly the shift from broad disdain in the performance of government and politics to mere diffidence.

That’s the secondary plotline of 2020. While times have been bad, we have consistently approved of the work of our governments – federal and state – in navigating their way through the mess.

Whereas politics is normally an internal stoush within a closed system, the 2020 political contest has been against external forces and judged on global comparisons.

Incumbents at all levels of government have benefited as Australia emerged as one of the few nations on Earth to have successfully suppressed Covid-19. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, who started the year under fire for being seen to dodge his responsibilities as the nation burned, has embedded his positive standing with the Australian public.

Do you approve or disapprove of the job Scott Morrison is doing as prime minister?

Critical to this success was his pragmatism in the early days of lockdown to share leadership with the states and reject his fiscal fetishes to embrace Keynesian economics to support people in need. Out of the corner of your eye it seemed like you were watching a Labor government in action – and it worked for all of us.

There is a post-partisan element in this approval, Morrison commanding strong support through the year from conservative and progressive voters alike; while incumbent Labor governments were emphatically returned in the Northern Territory, the ACT and, most significantly, in Queensland.

Indeed, attempts by the prime minister and his colleagues to politicise border closures to the advantage of the Liberal National opposition in Queensland fell flat as did the sustained attack on the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, for his hard lockdown to defeat his state’s second wave.

The relatively strong standing of federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, through the year shows that politics was not a zero-sum game in 2020. The one job of an opposition leader this year was not to disqualify oneself from future office by acting like an opportunistic pork chop. Unlike some state leaders, Albo passed this test.

Do you approve or disapprove of the job Anthony Albanese is doing as opposition leader?

I think these findings show that the politics of 2020 are actually a work in progress. There is due credit to the prime minister but not at the expense of support for or, critically, a vote for the ALP.

That story of the next election is still to be written: I suspect with a different script from the tired old one of recent political cycles. Because 2020 presented us with a bigger version of government than that favoured by conservatives and, let’s be honest, elements of the ALP for the past few decades.

It is a version of government that harnesses the resources to deal with crisis, that takes responsibility for the delivery of services, that doesn’t treat welfare as a morality play.

Where things fell down was when government shied away from responsibility: the outsourcing of quarantine security, the attempt to transform caring for the aged from a service to an industry, the idea that you could pay people for tasks without calling it a job.

No government nor leader was perfect in 2020. The Victorian second wave, the New South Wales premier’s Icac revelations, moments of overreach from the PM. But in the face of crisis, the normal gotcha politics didn’t seem to apply and leaders were able to apologise, dust themselves off and move on to the next challenge.

On one level the public could be seen as more forgiving through this crisis, but I think on another level the success of 2020 will actually mean more will be asked of government in 2021 and beyond.

As we move out of the pandemic crisis, Australia has some big challenges government will need to address with the same sense of common purpose.

The standoff with China is not just exposing our economic reliance on a single trading partner, but also our vexed defence alliance with a brittle and divided United States.

As the economy stutters back to life, will we allow workplace laws that separate the tasks of work from the social benefits of stable employment?

And most fundamentally on climate change, can we continue to be a global outlier that drags its feet to an energy transition?

Whether it’s a gift or a curse, I think the success of Australian government in 2020 has meant we will no longer be satisfied with platitudes like “not our problem” or “we are too small to make a difference” or “let the market decide”.

By showing what government can do, the bar has been raised. And if that is the legacy of 2020, then it won’t have been all bad.

Peter Lewis is executive director of Essential Media. Join Peter and Guardian political editor Katharine Murphy to discuss the results of the final Guardian Essential Report of the year at 1pm on Tuesday