The Coming Storm

Reports are coming in that an ‘extreme’ solar storm is heading towards Earth, and is likely to affect communications and power grids tomorrow (Friday or Saturday, depending on where you are).

This won’t be the first or last such event, but it’s only since we became so dependent on satellites, electricity, and global communications that a solar storm has had the potential to cause havoc. Before we relied on electricity, no doubt people just enjoyed the pyrotechnics as the sky lit up with the Aurora Borealis or (for the minority of us in the southern hemisphere) the Aurora Australis – and attributed the display to supernatural phenomena.

One of the largest such events to be recorded in detail took place between 28 August and 2 September 1859. By then, many parts of the world were already becoming dependent on the electric telegraph, so this solar flare caused havoc in communications – though on a much smaller scale than is possible today. It is known as the Carrington Event, after the English astronomer Richard Carrington, who was one of the first to notice what was happening.

The telegraph was already important in Australia. Not surprising, considering the size of the continent and its sparse population.

Electric Telegraph stamp

1871 Electric Telegraph stamp from New South Wales

During the 1859 solar storm, the Aurora Australis was seen in Australia as far north as Brisbane and Ipswich – far, far to the north of where it would normally be visible. Here’s part of the report from the Moreton Bay Courier, 7 September 1859:

MOST of our readers saw last week, for three nights, commencing after sunset, and lighting up the heavens with a gorgeous hue of red, the Southern Aurora. At Sydney they only appear to have had a tithe of the beauty, as the Aurora did not shine so long or so brightly as in Queensland. Friday night was the grandest in appearance here, the Aurora being visible from seven o’clock in the evening until after midnight. At times there was an appearance of rays down the whole range of light, which seemed many miles in extent, and a number of stars were distinctly visible, contrasting their pale effulgence with the red hue of the Aurora. The sight was the general object of remark on Friday night by reason of its brilliancy and the length of time it appeared.

The telegraph wires were ‘deranged’ and communications were disrupted for days. Meanwhile, in Ipswich, west of Brisbane, a resident wrote to the newspaper to report that

Last night, and on the night of Monday last, the Aurora Australis was beautifully observable in the southern sky. A neighbour of mine thought it was the first sign of the coming Judgment!

North Australian, Ipswich and General Advertiser, 6 September 1859

Let’s hope not. Meanwhile, if the coming storm is as bad as people predict, dear reader, you probably won’t be reading this until the whole thing is over. Meanwhile, I’m going out to look up at the sky tonight.

Are you a local?

Last weekend our neighbourhood hosted the Sandcliffe Writers Festival, named after two of the participating suburbs, Sandgate and Shorncliffe. I missed the Saturday, but I spent part of Sunday afternoon in the audience at the Sandgate Town Hall for a session entitled ‘Loving the Australian Landscape’. I knew almost nothing about what to expect, except that it began at 1:30, was free and – most importantly for someone of my natural apathy on a Sunday afternoon – was happening about 5 minutes walk from home.

Foolishly imaging it might be hard to get a seat, I arrived early. As I came in the door 2 volunteers grabbed me, one with a camera.
‘Are you a local?’ they asked.
‘Well, yes…’ I live at the other end of the street.
So they hung onto me as a useful (and possibly rare) prop for photographs with Our Local Member, and in due course I was squeezed in between him and Matt Condon, the first of the speakers to turn up. I’ve no idea what they did with the photos, but as they forgot to get my name, if I feature in them, I will have to be labeled ‘A Local’.

Our Local Member is Wayne Swan, former Deputy Prime Minister, former Federal Treasurer, but now with a good deal more time on his hands as an opposition backbencher. I don’t know whether he stayed for the afternoon, but I hope he did, for against my initial expectations I found it an impressive occasion.

The afternoon began with a Welcome to Country from Uncle Des (I never did find out his surname, and he’s not listed in the program). For those who don’t know, it is very common in Australia these days to begin formal occasions with a Welcome to Country from an Aboriginal elder, or more loosely, an Acknowledgement of Country from one of the non-indigenous speakers. I often find this acknowledgement either precious or perfunctory, a fashionable nod in the direction of reconciliation before the ‘real’ events of the day begin. (I’m also quite sure the reason for my cynicism is that the first person I ever heard give such an acknowledgement was a much-loathed and deeply cynical former Vice Chancellor.)

This Welcome, on the other hand, was utterly disarming. Uncle Des was wonderful. He mooched around the room with a wicked smile on his face, greeting friends, welcoming us all in to a boree – circle of friends. He told us about Tinchi Tamba – otherwise known here in Sandgate as the ‘third lagoon’ – and explained that it gets its name tinchi from the mangroves that grow there. He talked about Tom Petrie travelling through here with the Aborigines on the way to the bunya festival – and well known story – and explained that when Tom later took up land north of here, he named it murrumba meaning ‘good’. Murrumba Downs is now a dormitory suburb, while Petrie is the neighbouring electorate.

Uncle Des was followed by Yulu Burri Ba Dance Troupe led by Joshua Walker, a grandson of the poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, formerly Kath Walker, of the Noonuccal people of Stradbroke Island. The dancers turned out to be 5 of her great-grandchildren, the oldest perhaps 13. Joshua sang, and the kids danced to a didgeridoo accompaniment.

Yulu Burri Ba Dance Troupe

The Yulu Burri Ba Dance Troupe performing at the Sandgate Town Hall

Joshua first explained the story behind each dance. He has mastered the techniques of the oral storyteller magnificently, using his whole body to tell each tale. I particularly liked the story of the sea eagle and the mullet. The eagle circles high over the entrance to Moreton Bay, watching for the arrival of the winter mullet school swimming up from the south. The leader fish turn into the Bay between Stradbroke and Moreton Islands and the eagle watches as the fish all follow their leaders in. He won’t begin to hunt until the leader fish are well into the Bay, because if the leaders are killed or frightened, the school may turn away and the winter fishing season will be lost.

After the dancing we had 4 papers on ‘Loving the Australian Landscape’. Sam Watson spoke first. Sam has long been an activist in local Aboriginal politics. He goes back so far that he still calls Oodgeroo ‘Auntie Kath’. He talked about his experiences in the early 1970s, when he worked as a law clerk doing conveyance work in the Titles Office. His job was the track land titles back – always – to the first colonial survey. Before that, according to the Titles Office, there was nothing.

The next speaker was James Molony. He has written many books for children, and an adult novel, The Tower Mill, based around an anti-apartheid rally in 1971 that turned nasty when police charged into a crowd protesting against the South African cricket tour. Sam Watson – now in need of a knee replacement – was in the crowd that night. James talked about urban landscapes, and the way old high-set Queensland houses (‘Queenslanders’), with their deep verandahs, dating from the 1880s, were an early accommodation by the new settlers to the local environment. Now many of those Queenslanders are being pulled down, to be replaced by airconditioned boxes with no connection to the outside environment. He argued that in the last 20 or 30 years, non-indigenous writers (and others?) have become so aware of the history of dispossession that they are no longer comfortable in the landscape.

Joshua Walker – now dressed in tee-shirt and jeans instead of a red loin cloth – talked about his journey from the working class suburb of Inala, with a Scottish mother and part-Aboriginal, part-Vanuatuan father, to discover his cultural heritage. Since Oodgeroo died in 1993, this young grandson can have learned very little directly from her. He told us that he was initiated by the Wiradjuri people in western New South Wales, and that Oodgeroo’s mother came from there.

Joshua talked about the links between animals and trees: the carpet snake is associated with the native passionfruit, for instance, and should only be hunted when it is in flower (although not by Joshua and his children, who have it as their totem). Saltwater people are associated with the cypress pine; freshwater people with the bunya pine. He also read from Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth (2012).

The final speaker was Matt Condon, who spoke about coming home to Brisbane after many years away, and settling in the same suburb where his parents and grandparents had lived. He also talked about his trilogy – 2 down and one to go – on police corruption in Queensland since the 1940s.

A few days ago, the PM Tony Abbott launched the Defining Moments Project at the National Museum in Canberra. These lists are always contentious anyway, but Abbott put his foot in it when he described the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 as ‘the defining moment’ in the history of Australia. On the one hand, it states the bleeding obvious, especially as the Museum says they want to choose dates that were important ‘for better or worse’. On the other hand, it just gives unnecessary offence to indigenous people who were here long before. And the sea eagle has been circling for thousands of years before then, watched by people who have lived on Stradbroke Island for at least 20,000 years.

Sandgate Town Hall, Sandgate

Sandgate Town Hall

And what about me? As I sat there, listening to these talks, my eyes wandered around the lovely little Sandgate Town Hall, recently restored to its original art deco charm (but with air-conditioning). It was designed and built in 1911 to replace an earlier wooden hall that had been destroyed by fire. The architect, George Prentice, was my grandfather’s brother.

One of my great-grandfathers married a daughter of Johann Zillmann, one of the Germans who established a mission to the Aborigines at Zion Hill, now Nundah, just up the road from Wayne Swan’s electorate office. Another great-grandfather married a daughter of George Grey, who was one of the original English settlers in Sandgate. He was one of the settlers who called in the Native Police in 1857 to ‘disperse the natives’.

It’s complicated. But yes, I’m a local.

Bioethics in Historical Perspective

During the last month Australia and Thailand have had to confront the implications of a terrible medical dilemma, when news broke of ‘Baby Gammy’, the Downs syndrome twin left behind by an Australian couple who paid a Thai woman to carry their child. When the mother found she was having twins, she allegedly refused to abort the pregnancy because of her Buddhist beliefs. The genetic parents subsequently took the ‘good twin’, a girl, back to Australia with them, leaving the boy behind with a mother too poor to pay for his medical treatment. A lot of this is still ‘alleged’ – but just when it seemed the story couldn’t get any worse, it turned out that the new father had formerly been convicted of child abuse. Both Thailand and Australia have been hastily rushing through new regulations on child surrogacy.

Many medical issues have an ethical dimension. Some, like surrogacy, are self-evidently vexed. Others are subtler.

In the current Ebola epidemic, for instance, why does an American patient get flown home for treatment that is not available for Africans? What are the ethics of administering treatment that is still experimental? And why is the language in which the disease is discussed so charged? There has been a lot of talk about how uneducated Africans don’t obey the scientists when they are told to abandon their traditional burial rites and not touch Ebola victims, or wash the bodies of their dead relatives. Yet the said American patient subsequently credited Jesus, not the scientists, for his recovery.

Sarah Ferber, Bioethics in Historical Perspective

It is against this background that I’ve recently been reading Sarah Ferber’s Bioethics in Historical Perspective (Palgrave, 2013).  As Sarah says in her introduction, bioethics is a political minefield, starting with just what the discipline is and who ‘owns’ it – doctors? philosophers? policy makers? Historians would not be the first port of call for anyone thinking of the ethics of medicine, but putting medical debates in a historical context is very valuable, and this book does that well.

The book starts with Sarah confronting her first bioethical issue:

As a 17-year-old I went to work over the summer in a Catholic psychiatric hospital [in the days of R.D.Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement]. My job as it turned out – and as I had half hoped – brought me close to the medical treatment of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT or ‘shock treatment’). My specific task was to hold anaesthetized patients in a stable position while they underwent the treatment and then monitor them afterwards: I lasted a full thirty minutes. The kindly mother-superior asked me to pause with her in the chapel on the way out so she could ‘put a bit of religion’ into me. This appears not to have worked. [ix-x]

After this challenging opening, the book becomes what it is designed to be: a textbook for bioethics courses. How grateful we should all be that such courses exist, especially for medical and other students who will go out to deliver health care after graduation.

Anyone who quotes George Orwell’s essay on the English language is my friend for life, and I really loved the chapter dealing with language, and also the fact that this chapter was so early in the book, and sets the scene for what comes later. Is organ transplantation ‘a gift of life’, or ‘a trade in spare parts’, for instance? In different circumstances, of course, it is both. I was reminded here of work that has been done on blood, which is donated free in some countries, but sold in others.

In a series of subsequent chapters Sarah looks at various issues from relatively recent history. I won’t elaborate on each of them, for the titles are self-explanatory: ‘Euthanasia, the Nazi Analogy and the Slippery Slope’; ‘Heredity, Genes and Reproductive Politics’; ‘Human Experimentation’; ‘Thalidomide’.

Despite the complexity of much of this material, Sarah writes with great clarity. The only slight irony, I thought, was that given Orwell is so critical of the passive mode, after her introduction she writes always as an omnipresent narrator, and I wondered whether she could have inserted herself into the debate just a little. This is probably a necessary evil of the textbook format.

What I particularly like about this book is its moderate tone. Sarah is dealing with such fraught issues, and there’s such possibility for hysteria in many of those topics, but she takes a cool and thoughtful perspective on them. (Much cooler and more thoughtful than my deliberately emotional lead paragraph – sorry Sarah!)

The following sentences seem to sum up the way she thinks and writes:

What is most difficult, when confronting either abhorrent or dubious practice, is to try to find a way to accommodate them analytically, even if one rejects them as a matter of instinct. Nothing is ameliorated solely by condemnation or distancing. Most unethical practices lie on some kind of continuum with normal aspirations.’ (127)

That’s terrific: clear, cool, non-judgmental and I’m pleased to report that though hysteria usually sells much better, this thoughtful, balanced account is selling rather well so far. Let’s hope her insights have an impact on policy decisions.

Note: Sarah is a personal friend of mine, which is why I refer to her as Sarah, not Ferber, throughout. We’ve discussed this book over the years, and I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements page, so I am probably not the most objective reviewer – but hey, my blog, my rules!

There is an interview with Sarah about the book on YouTube here.

This review is written as a contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.

A Right Whale in the Wrong Place

Last week a boat strike killed a southern right whale – maybe two – in Moreton Bay. One mangled carcass of a young female finally drifted ashore on Peel Island, where rangers from Parks and Wildlife dragged it above the tide line ‘as high as possible…to allow its natural decomposition to continue.’ Another whale was seen still alive, but with propeller injuries along the length of its body. The calf travelling with the pair has not been seen since Friday, but will surely die as well.

corpse of a right whale

Photograph by Darren Burns of the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation

The death of this whale is particularly sad because although the number of humpback whales is rising, and they are now a common sight – even in Sydney Harbour – the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) continues to struggle and the species remains on the endangered list.

The reason for this lies in the evidence of that floating carcass. Unlike other whales, a dead right whale floats when dead because of its thick blubber, so to whalers, they were the right whales to catch. Not only did they yield more oil, but after harpooning, they could be tethered alongside a vessel, and processed at the whalers’ convenience. So right whales were hunted more than any other baleen whale, and their numbers dropped accordingly.

Whaling off the coast of Australia began virtually from the arrival of the first British colonists. Ships would dump their ‘cargo’ of convicts in Sydney, then head off into the Southern Ocean to hunt for whales. Sperm whales were the most valuable, because of their spermaceti oil, but like all toothed whales they were dangerous too.

Slow moving baleen whales like the humpback and right whale were much easier prey. Humpbacks breed in tropical water off the Queensland coast, but right whales seem to prefer cooler waters. In Australia, that means in calm inlets in South Australia and along the Victorian coast.

So what were these right whales doing in the warmer waters of Moreton Bay?

There are no 19th century records of right whales migrating this far north. Lack of evidence, of course, doesn’t constitute evidence of a lack of whales, but given the colonists’ enthusiasm for harvesting any marine creatures they could profitably kill, including dugong, turtle and other whales, I think someone would have mentioned it. But in the last decade or so, small family groups of right whales have begun to appear off Stradbroke Island and now – disastrously – in Moreton Bay itself.

Mike Noad, an expert on whales at the University of Queensland, has a theory that they are following an old migration route, one that pre-dates the European settlement of southeast Queensland. Early colonial whalers targeted right whales so devastatingly that the southern right whale population had already collapsed by the time the Moreton Bay settlement was founded in 1824. There were no right whales left to follow this minor breeding route northwards.

It seems plausible, though there’s probably no way we will ever know for sure. At present the whales are heading south to the Antarctic, where they will feed on krill during the southern summer. They are slow moving because they can only swim at the speed of their young calves, which were born in the last month or so. For that reason, they need to rest regularly in sheltered bays like Moreton Bay.

But Moreton Bay is no longer a reliable shelter. The bay is a busy place these days. Ferries crisscross the waters, and hydrofoils and water taxis can’t stop quickly. Perhaps they should just slow down.

Boat strikes happen too often, to turtles and dugong as well as whales. What also worries me – as a historian of whaling – is the significance of that name. How many humpbacks and other whale species have been killed by boat strikes in Moreton Bay, but because they were not ‘the right’ whales, their bodies sank to the seabed unrecorded.

See Andrew Darby, ‘Slow down, whales crossing’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 July 2014.

The end of the United Kingdom?

In 1698 a group of Scottish businessmen established a colony in Central America, on the Isthmus of Panama. The ‘Darien Project’, named after its location on the Gulf of Darien, turned out to be a disaster – fatally so, for most of the men and women who went out there between 1698 and 1700, but a financial disaster back in Scotland as well.

A bit like the South Sea Bubble, which caused such embarrassment for investors in England a few years later, the Darien scheme had involved a lot of lowland merchants and members of the political class, and with the collapse of their investment, they faced ruin. The term ‘sovereign debt’ hadn’t been invented, but effectively, so did the Scottish nation itself.

Since 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England with the death of his cousin Elizabeth Tudor, the same Protestant branch of the Stuart/Stewart dynasty had ruled both Kingdoms, but they did not yet form a United Kingdom.

England was richer and bigger, but its taxpayers weren’t enthusiastic about baling out the Scots. In the end, they did so, but on fairly harsh terms. Scotland’s disastrous imperial adventure was paid off, the Scottish currency was stabilized (at the humiliating exchange rate of one English shilling to the Scottish pound) and in 1707 the Act of Union created a United Kingdom – and a Union Jack, based on the combined flags of St George and St Andrew. But Scotland lost its Parliament, and it would be over a century before another monarch visited – George IV in 1822.

Wilkie, George IV

There’s a saying that kilts are worn by Scots abroad, and by Americans in Scotland. This gruesome image demonstrates that this is not strictly true. David Wilkie, George IV in a kilt, 1829

Instead of expanding their own empire, the Scots got access to the English – now British – Empire instead. Many of them went out to work for the East India Company and to the North American colonies, and in due course to Australia as well.

A lot of Scots came to New South Wales in the early years, including several early Governors (Hunter, Macquarie, Brisbane), some of the most senior NSW Corps officers (William Paterson, George Johnston), and the first free trader (Robert Campbell).

Thanks to Scotland’s different legal system, though, there were relatively few Scottish convicts. The standard of proof in criminal trials was higher, with a possible verdict of ‘Not Proven’, as well as ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not Guilty’. There was no law of trespass in Scotland either. So a Scotsman was transported for a great crime, an Englishman for a minor crime, and an Irishman for no crime at all – or so it was said, almost certainly by a disgruntled Irishman.

During the 19th century, Scottish immigrants were influential in many areas. Many became pastoralists, and I’ve always wondered how much their background understanding of Scottish land law affected their attitudes towards Aborigines. Scotland had no law of trespass, which may have made them more tolerant of traditional hunting routes across their land.

Other immigrants included doctors and engineers trained in the Scottish university system. One of Queensland’s early Premiers, Sir Thomas McIlwraith,  studied engineering at Glasgow University under William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, and became a mining engineer before entering politics – a rather more impressive educational record than most Queensland Premiers.

All this does rather suggest that Prime Minister Tony Abbott was on the back foot when he recently told The Times in London that ‘Scottish independence would be a victory for the enemies of freedom and justice’, causing offence in Scotland, and howls of derision at home.

Personally, I have no strong feelings one way or another about Scottish independence, but I certainly don’t think the breakup of the United Kingdom would herald the end of civilization as we know it, and I do wonder why Tony Abbott bothered to insert himself so ham-fistedly into other people’s business.

In general, while Scotland has had a significant influence on Australia, Australia has had absolutely none on Scotland (though I believe there is a colony of wallabies on an island in Loch Lomond, introduced in the 1920s).

Apart from Tony Abbott, there’s one other embarrassing exception. In 1995, Mel Gibson* produced the film Braveheart, and won multiple Oscars for his portrayal of a woad-dappled warrior almost completely unlike the original freedom-loving William Wallace. The film was hugely successful at the time, and has had a weird post-production role in a variety of independence movements. I’ve written about it here.

The yearning for Scottish independence predates Braveheart, of course. On my one and only visit to the Orkneys, way back in 1975, I was body searched at Kirkwall airport by security staff who thought (God knows why!) that I might be associated with the Tartan Army**, who were at that time setting off bombs in Scottish postboxes because they carried the letters QEII (the Queen is Elizabeth the First of Scotland).

I have no idea what will happen in the referendum in a couple of weeks time, but I’m sure that Tony Abbott’s intervention has done the Independence movement no end of good. William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered in London, by the English. Abbott might be advised to give Edinburgh a wide berth for a year or so, or risk being disemboweled.

* Mel Gibson was born in New York and moved with his family to Australia at the age of 12. Australians tend to claim him as their own when he’s doing good things, like winning Oscars. When he’s shouting anti-Semitic diatribes, not so much.
**Not the football supporters, the other ones.

Giles Whittell, ‘Scots Independence a Bad Idea, says Australian PM’, The Times, 16 August 2014 – behind paywall.

Book thieves

Less than 20 years ago, archaeologists discovered a library in the Athenian Agora dating from about 100AD. The Library of Pantainos was named for its dedicator, Titus Flavius Pantainos, and was recognized as a library mainly because the library rules have survived:

Image of the Rules of the library

No book is to be taken out because we have sworn an oath. [The library] is to be open from the first hour until the sixth.

No borrowing, and restricted library hours. I can relate to that, even though I would find the papyrus scrolls unfamiliar – and as a woman I wouldn’t be allowed inside anyway.

As I’ve said many times, I love libraries and librarians. There’s something universally welcoming about a library, a familiarity in the layout, the catalogues, the reading matter, regardless of time and place. Of course there are superficial differences. A friend has just posted some pictures on Facebook of the library he is using in India at the moment: paper catalogues and an outside loo. When I first worked in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I had to swear the following:

I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.

Fires were a problem in libraries based on papyrus, vellum or paper, but the clay tablets in the library of Ashurbanipal survived because they were burnt, and baked hard as a result. The wax tablets didn’t do so well.

Libraries let the past talk to the present, and free access to libraries is precious, at risk now that so many databases are accessible only by costly subscription – though digitization is costly, so what is the solution?

There are advantages, though, in a system where books and journal articles are increasingly available online, because although not everyone may be able to walk in off the street to find material, as they once did in the days before usernames and passwords, at least for university students, it’s a level playing field.

It hasn’t always been so. I studied history at the University of Queensland in the late 1960s. Several years ahead of me was another honours student who stole books and journal articles from the library. In those days, of course, nothing was online. Books took months to order from overseas, there was no electronic security, and photocopying was primitive and expensive.

This student took out books hidden in her portable typewriter case, and cut out journal articles from the bound volumes. It took the library years to track down what had gone missing – though we students, travelling in her wake, soon learned through bitter experience to avoid any topic that she had worked on in previous years. I discovered this, to my cost, when I wrote an essay on the historiography of Marxism, only to find the key articles in my bibliography had been removed with a razor blade.

Why did she do it? Sometimes people steal from libraries because of the intrinsic value of the material, as I have discussed here, but this wasn’t true in this case. Part of the reason must surely have been the extreme competitiveness of the honours year. In those days, examiners awarded degrees according to a normal distribution – the notorious ‘bell-shaped curve’ – which meant (or so we all believed) that only a certain number of first class degrees would be awarded each year, regardless of the merit of the student cohort. In a zero sum game, depriving others of essential reading matter improved her chances.

Another factor was that there was no mechanism for copying material other than copying it out by hand – or typing it, for we few, mainly female students, who knew how to type. So the temptation to cut out and steal was always there.

My late colleague, Denis Murphy, came across another example at the Mitchell Library in Sydney. He was reading newspapers for his PhD on T.J.Ryan, who was Queensland Premier during World War I. He found a lot of columns that had been clipped out sometime earlier – and found there was a pattern. They related to constitutional matters, and many of the missing columns were quoted at length in H.V.Evatt, The King and His Dominion Governors (1936).

Was Evatt responsible for these thefts? Did a research assistant do the dirty deed – in which case, why did Evatt never question the source of the clippings? There may be some innocent explanation, but it’s a curious pattern, all the same.

It’s also something of a political scandal, because at the time he was writing The King and His Dominion Governors, Evatt was a High Court Judge. He was later the Federal Attorney General in the Curtin and Chifley Labor Governments, before becoming Minister for External Affairs and the (very poor) Opposition Leader. Libraries, from Athens to the present, should be all about sharing and equal access, so it’s rather shocking when somebody breaches that trust, especially when it’s such an eminent person as Australia’s chief law officer.

Just the other day, I was told of a similar case involving a Cabinet Minister in our present Federal Government. It’s gossip, it’s hearsay, and it’s not my story to tell anyway. But I hope it’s not true. At least with the rise of the internet, students have equal access to the journals they need for their studies. They don’t even have to present themselves in the Agora between the first and the sixth hour.

Political Climate Change

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 MackellarMy 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.

Dorothea Mackellar My Country MS

First published in The Spectator, 5 September 1908, from Wikipedia

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.