Last Saturday was the coldest morning in Brisbane for over a hundred years – so I was wondering how long it would take for someone to claim it for partisan purposes in the never-ending debate over climate change.
Sure enough someone raised the point during the debate yesterday, as our current government abolished the tax on carbon, at the moment the only legislation keeping us on track to meet our international commitment to reduce carbon emissions. It was really cold in Brisbane (2.6°C) so we don’t need to worry about rising temperatures. What a pity our politicians are such lousy statisticians that they can’t tell the difference between a trend and an outlier.
Perhaps we should blame Dorothea Mackellar. My Country was first published in 1908, and has been anthologized in countless schoolbooks ever since. It is surely one of Australia’s favourite poems, celebrating a wide brown land full of droughts and flooding rains, her beauty and terror – her unpredictability.
And so it was for early European settlers arriving in Australia who had no idea how to read the weather or anticipate the seasons. The Aborigines had their own seasons and methods of prediction. ‘When the blowflies come [in November], there are no more whales,’ the Yuin people told Oswald Brierly, a whaling station manager on the far south coast of New South Wales in the 1840s. Unfortunately most settlers didn’t ask, or didn’t listen as respectfully as Brierly, and as a result they struggled.
We now know that Australia’s climate is less unpredictable than people once believed – and the great pendulum that governs the climate of Eastern Australia is the vortex in the Pacific Ocean that swings Australia, and all the continents bordering the Pacific, between El Niño and La Niña effects.
The strength of these swings can be measured by the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI), but it was a part of Peruvian folklore long before. El Niño – the boy child – came about Christmas, and marked the start of a particularly good year’s fishing, as warm water welling up to the surface brought millions of anchovies and the larger fish that fed on them. La Niña – the girl – brings the opposite conditions: bad fishing in South America, but good rains in Australia.
Most historians now think that when James Cook and Joseph Banks described the east coast of Australia in 1770, they saw it in the middle of a La Niña event. Eighteen years later, the First Fleet arrived just before an El Niño event (1790-92), and the settlers found the country dry and difficult to cultivate.
These early events depend on a retrospective evaluation of meteorological measurements so their dates are a bit fuzzy, but according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology there have been 12 ‘canonical’ strong El Niño events since 1900: 1905, 1914, 1940, 1941, 1946, 1965, 1972, 1977, 1982, 1991, 1994, 1997, with no strong El Niño since 1997/8.
Looking at this list as a historian, I find some of these dates rather curious. Since federation in 1901, Australians have overwhelmingly elected conservative governments, and tend to stick with a government through two or more elections. Since just before World War I, when the party system began to stabilize, there have only been 12 changes of the party in government. Labor Governments were elected only 6 times: in 1914, 1929, 1941, 1972, 1983, 2007. Four of those elections, if we include the Hawke election on 5 March 1983, coincide with El Niño events.
I don’t for a moment suggest a deterministic relationship. Obviously other factors are important, particularly depression (Scullin in 1929), war (Fisher in 1914; Curtin in 1941) and internal division (Whitlam in 1972). But I wonder.
Long before Australians knew about El Niño, or cared about climate change, they worried about the weather. Dorothea Mackellar’s celebration of a sunburnt country is all very well, but farmers prefer predictability, and until recently, Australia’s economy depended on farmers. People get tetchy when the weather turns against them. Perhaps they prefer the security of a welfare state when times are hard and the future is uncertain.
The missing date is 2007, the last occasion on while a Labor Government was elected in Australia. One of the key issues in this election was anxiety about drought, the degradation of the Murray-Darling basin and – yes – climate change. Then the girl-child arrived and it rained. Water from the Queensland floods poured into the Murray River, and the political landscape changed.
People are fickle. But perhaps, like the Australian climate, they are not as unpredictable as they appear. We may be overdue for another El Niño, and we may be heading for a particularly intense one. It will be interesting to see what happens when it arrives, as it certainly will some time soon. The pendulum swings. Tick, tock.