‘Life can be cruel at times; it can steal as much in one hand that sometimes we just have to cling onto what it leaves behind, however small an offering.’
A chance conversation with an acquaintance I have made while walking led me to this book. We were talking about dementia, and Wendy Mitchell’s experience was mentioned. I had to track down her book for myself.
This is an inspirational story, of how Wendy Mitchell, diagnosed with early-onset dementia at the age of 58, has adjusted to life with dementia. She writes of how her world became blurred, how it became harder to do things, how right hand turns in the car led her to plot different routes (only involving left hand turns) until driving was beyond her.
‘That’s what Alzheimer’s does: it’s a thief in the night, stealing precious pictures from our lives while we sleep.’
Wendy held a responsible position in the British NHS, had raised two daughters alone and had been an active woman, running and climbing mountains. Living with dementia has provided challenges but for now Wendy is able to live independently. She uses Post-it notes and calendar alarms to remind her of appointments and routines and labels to find things that she otherwise might not recognise.
Wendy had to retire from her position with the NHS and she has found a role educating others about living with dementia. Wendy has found a way of living with dementia which, for now at least, allows her a degree of independence. I found this book inspirational.
‘But I was still me. Still me, but with a diseased brain.’
‘In some imaginary universe, he might be revered as Professor Sir Andrew Wakefield.’
Who is Andrew Wakefield, and why is he referred to as ‘the father of the anti-vaccine movement?’ Why has this movement gained so much momentum?
Once again, vaccination is a hot topic. Once again, those for vaccination and those against face off. Social media provides an additional vector for the spread of (mis)information. Rumour becomes fact. People remember horror stories. Fears cloud judgement. And, because of non-vaccination, some diseases are returning. Why are people choosing not to have their children vaccinated?
Part of the answer lies in activities undertaken by Andrew Wakefield, then a doctor in the UK, trying to prove a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. His study was published in the Lancet in 1998 and has since been retracted. Mr Deer goes into painstaking detail to provide the background. He provides biographical detail of Andrew Wakefield, a description of the rigged research undertaken to try to prove a connection, and the hopes of those families struggling with a disability and looking for answers. Heartbreaking stuff.
Fifteen years of investigation: a long investigation, several different players (many of whom only had parts of the story) and plenty of statistics. I read page after page, wondering how on earth Andrew Wakefield got away with presenting misinformation as science. I felt sorry for the families caught up in his ‘proof’, and angry with the medical establishment for not acting earlier. So, Andrew Wakefield is banned from medicine and has left the UK for the USA where he is feted by conspiracy theorists. Sigh.
As Mr Deer writes:
‘The way I saw it, it was never about the science, the children or the mothers. It had always been about himself.’
I found this a difficult book to read for two reasons. Firstly, I really did not want to believe that the checks and balances that should apply to research had failed, and secondly, I feel incredibly sad that people continue to believe in a totally discredited study (some of the children involved had signs of autism before they had the MMR vaccine). The downside of children not being vaccinated is a rise in preventable diseases. Diseases which can cause serious illness and may result in death.
Yes, I am aware that there are some children cannot have some vaccinations for medical reasons. But those reasons do not apply to most. I am absolutely in favour of the rigorous testing of vaccinations, to identify possible side effects and issues.
I believe that vaccination saves lives. I remember standing with my father, a survivor of the poliomyelitis epidemic of the early 1950s, in a queue in the early 1960s to have the Salk vaccine. I remember how hard it was for my father to stand in that queue. He never fully recovered from polio.
I wish that those who don’t believe in vaccination would read this book.
‘Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.’
This story starts in eighteenth century Ghana, with two sisters born to different mothers in different villages. Effia and Esi lead very different lives and will never know each other. Effia is selected as wife to an Englishman and lives a life of privilege in Cape Coast Castle. In the dungeons beneath, her sister Esi is, with thousands of others, destined for slavery in America.
From these two lives, we follow the impacts of slavery and British colonisation in Ghana, and the path of slavery and its aftermath in America. One thread follows the lives of Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana as the Asante and Fante nations wrestle with colonisation and the slave trade. The other thread follows Esi and her descendants into America.
Effia and Esi are the pivotal characters, and the ones to which I felt most connected. As the story passes from one generation to the next, I had to keep referring to the family tree at the front of the book to keep the characters clear. I know little Ghanaian history. While the characters inhabiting those chapters of the story gave me some appreciation of conflicts, issues, and the effects of British colonisation, I need (and want) to read more. With the characters in America, I felt on more familiar historical ground. And yet, while the history is important, it is the stories of the individuals that makes this novel shine. Disadvantage becomes real through the eyes of Yaa Gyasi’s characters, as does the sense of dislocation. Where (and how) do people fit when their family ties are disrupted or destroyed, when colour defines place? How do nations evolve when slavery is part of their history? Both Ghana and America are shaped by this history as are the individuals.
This novel took me into some uncomfortable places and made me think about belonging and about the impact of dislocation. I am ambivalent about the ending, but every fiction must end somewhere.
‘We cannot know which story is correct because we were not there.’
At the end of 2020, there was a strong hope that high levels of vaccination would see humanity finally gain the upper hand over SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In an ideal scenario, the virus would then be contained at very low levels without further societal disruption or significant numbers of deaths.
But since then, new “variants of concern” have emerged and spread worldwide, putting current pandemic control efforts, including vaccination, at risk of being derailed.
Put simply, the game has changed, and a successful global rollout of current vaccines by itself is no longer a guarantee of victory.
No one is truly safe from COVID-19 until everyone is safe. We are in a race against time to get global transmission rates low enough to prevent the emergence and spread of new variants. The danger is that variants will arise that can overcome the immunity conferred by vaccinations or prior infection.
What’s more, many countries lack the capacity to track emerging variants via genomic surveillance. This means the situation may be even more serious than it appears.
As members of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission Taskforce on Public Health, we call for urgent action in response to the new variants. These new variants mean we cannot rely on the vaccines alone to provide protection but must maintain strong public health measures to reduce the risk from these variants. At the same time, we need to accelerate the vaccine program in all countries in an equitable way.
Together, these strategies will deliver “maximum suppression” of the virus.
There are currently at least three documented SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern:
B.1.351, first reported in South Africa in December 2020
B.1.1.7, first reported in the United Kingdom in December 2020
P.1, first identified in Japan among travellers from Brazil in January 2021.
Similar mutations are arising in different countries simultaneously, meaning not even border controls and high vaccination rates can necessarily protect countries from home-grown variants, including variants of concern, where there is substantial community transmission.
If there are high transmission levels, and hence extensive replication of SARS-CoV-2, anywhere in the world, more variants of concern will inevitably arise and the more infectious variants will dominate. With international mobility, these variants will spread.
South Africa’s experience suggests that past infection with SARS-CoV-2 offers only partial protection against the B.1.351 variant, and it is about 50% more transmissible than pre-existing variants. The B.1.351 variant has already been detected in at least 48 countries as of March 2021.
The impact of the new variants on the effectiveness of vaccines is still not clear. Recent real-world evidence from the UK suggests both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines provide significant protection against severe disease and hospitalisations from the B.1.1.7 variant.
On the other hand, the B.1.351 variant seems to reduce the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine against mild to moderate illness. We do not yet have clear evidence on whether it also reduces effectiveness against severe disease.
For these reasons, reducing community transmission is vital. No single action is sufficient to prevent the virus’s spread; we must maintain strong public health measures in tandem with vaccination programs in every country.
Why we need maximum suppression
Each time the virus replicates, there is an opportunity for a mutation to occur. And as we are already seeing around the world, some of the resulting variants risk eroding the effectiveness of vaccines.
That’s why we have called for a global strategy of “maximum suppression”.
Public health leaders should focus on efforts that maximally suppress viral infection rates, thus helping to prevent the emergence of mutations that can become new variants of concern.
Prompt vaccine rollouts alone will not be enough to achieve this; continued public health measures, such as face masks and physical distancing, will be vital too. Ventilation of indoor spaces is important, some of which is under people’s control, some of which will require adjustments to buildings.
Fair access to vaccines
Global equity in vaccine access is vital too. High-income countries should support multilateral mechanisms such as the COVAX facility, donate excess vaccines to low- and middle- income countries, and support increased vaccine production.
However, to prevent the emergence of viral variants of concern, it may be necessary to prioritise countries or regions with the highest disease prevalence and transmission levels, where the risk of such variants emerging is greatest.
Those with control over health-care resources, services and systems should ensure support is available for health professionals to manage increased hospitalisations over shorter periods during surges without reducing care for non-COVID-19 patients.
Health systems must be better prepared against future variants. Suppression efforts should be accompanied by:
genomic surveillance programs to identify and quickly characterise emerging variants in as many countries as possible around the world
rapid large-scale “second-generation” vaccine programs and increased production capacity that can support equity in vaccine distribution
studies of vaccine effectiveness on existing and new variants of concern
adapting public health measures (such as double masking) and re-committing to health system arrangements (such as ensuring personal protective equipment for health staff)
behavioural, environmental, social and systems interventions, such as enabling ventilation, distancing between people, and an effective find, test, trace, isolate and support system.
COVID-19 variants of concern have changed the game. We need to recognise and act on this if we as a global society are to avoid future waves of infections, yet more lockdowns and restrictions, and avoidable illness and death.
But he hasn’t been booted out of the parliamentary party, which is what should happen.
Having Laming go to the crossbench would wipe out the government’s majority, which is what the prime minister wants to avoid. The departure of Craig Kelly to the crossbench has already removed the Coalition’s working majority on the floor of the house.
When Nine on Thursday was about to run a story on the bullying, Morrison called in Laming and made him apologise in the house. Laming then trashed his own apology, saying on Facebook he didn’t even know what he’d apologised for. Morrison gave him another talking to.
On Saturday (speaking before the story about Laming photographing a woman stacking a fridge, whose underwear was showing, came to public light) Morrison told the media: “I spoke to him again this morning, and I’m arranging for Mr Laming, for Andrew Laming, to now go and get appropriate assistance through an appropriate course to build his understanding and awareness about his actions.
“And I think this is one of the important things that we need to do. The way you fix this is we’ve got to educate, inform and increase awareness to change behaviour. I want to see behaviour change.”
This sounds like some parallel universe – the prime minister “arranging” for Laming to get “appropriate assistance”, and suggesting he has to build “awareness about his actions”.
This MP has been in parliament since the 2004 election. He trained as a doctor. Let’s be frank: no MP needs a course to know gross bullying of people in his local community is appalling conduct for a parliamentarian.
As seems the way now with Coalition parliamentarians in trouble, Laming has gone on leave.
He said in a weekend statement he will “get assistance with courses in empathy and appropriate communication, not just to be a better MP, but to be a deeper and more empathetic person than what the recent events have demonstrated.
“The common thread of the last week has been not demonstrating anything close to understanding how my actions affect others. I intend to own those mistakes.
“I will also be obtaining clinical counselling, for a duration decided by others, but I will aim to complete it by the next parliamentary sitting”.
That is, when the government needs him back.
His leave is from electorate and committee work but Laming says his office will be “continuing to serve the community”.
Laming is the third embattled Liberal to go on leave in a few weeks. The others are ministers Christian Porter and Linda Reynolds.
Reynolds’ leave is a justified case – she has a heart condition.
It’s another matter with the others. Leave, frankly, looks like an excuse not to be around.
Morrison (who must be wishing he could get a bit of stress leave himself) will be bracing for any more revelations about people in his ranks.
It will be interesting to hear how he responds to the Sunday suggestion by two of his female backbenchers, Sarah Henderson and Katie Allen, on the ABC that MPs should be subject to drug and alcohol testing.
Henderson said she had heard “a few rumours about drugs”, although no names had been mentioned to her.
Meanwhile, early this week Morrison will announce his reshuffle. This involves shifting Porter and Reynolds but keeping them in cabinet, another compromise likely to be criticised as inadequate.
But a real test in this reshuffle is what Morrison does with the position of minister for women.
If he is serious about women’s issues, he should reallocate this post, at present held by the Foreign Minister Marise Payne.
Payne has shown no sign she can drive the agenda for women. She certainly can’t carry the very difficult public debate for the government; she has been little seen on the issues in the last few weeks. She did not even participate when the PM addressed Coalition staff the other day.
Given the present crisis embroiling the government, Morrison should have a stand alone cabinet position of minister for women.
This article has been corrected to remove a quote wrongly attributed to Josh Frydenberg.
Rage and roar are two words commonly used to describe the events of Monday 15 March, when tens of thousands joined the March4Justice: the emotional rage fuelling the protests; the roar of angry shouting voices raised against the treatment of women.
The anger driving the marches around the nation connects the day’s events to earlier feminist protests in Australia, and by Australian women in London. For well over a century, feminists have been angered by women’s lack of equal rights, their treatment by governments, and issues surrounding sex.
Indeed, for some women this recent protest was just one more in a lifetime of fighting for women’s rights and expressing their anger.
This was especially evident in front of Parliament House in Canberra. The large and energised crowd was diverse: from babies to the elderly; mostly women but many men; Indigenous people and whitefellas; dogs and prams threading among university and school students and those in business attire on their lunch break.
Feminists of the 1970s generation were in abundance, expressing their demands through placards, t-shirts and with their voices. Elizabeth Reid, who served as Women’s Adviser to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam from 1973 to 1975 — making her the first women’s adviser to a head of government anywhere in the world — sat down at the front in a folding chair, a highly-deserved queenly position. Her presence and globally historic role were acknowledged by the speakers.
Reid’s friend Biff Ward, a key founder of the Women’s Liberation group in Canberra, was one of the speakers, appearing alongside younger women like Brittany Higgins.
It was a joy to observe this range of generations joining forces.
The March4Justice adds to the long history of feminists using public space in spectacular ways to draw attention to society’s gender problems. Anger, sorrow and issues surrounding sex run through this history.
But so too do themes of joy, hope and resilience.
The spectacle of women’s suffrage
Feminist protest in Australia began in the late 19th century, when women were galvanised en masse for the first time by the issue of voting rights. Many were angered by the inequality and violence they witnessed and faced on a daily basis. They saw the vote as the key to transforming society, believing it would allow them to elect leaders sympathetic to women’s rights.
As the historian Marilyn Lake explains in Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, while all women lacked rights in the Australian colonies it was the plight of the married (white) woman that really captured suffragists’ attention. Upon marriage, women lost what little independence they had. They could not own property, easily file for divorce or maintain custody of their children.
The gender-based violence dominating feminist conversations in 2021 was also rife and politicised many early feminists. They were outraged wives had no personal autonomy and frequently suffered marital rape, unwanted childbearing, physical violence and economic control.
In response to this dismal situation, from the 1880s campaigns for women’s suffrage mounted. Local suffrage and other women’s organisations were formed and acted as pressure groups lobbying for change.
Activists like Louisa Lawson and Rose Scott made impassioned speeches, held public rallies and wrote to major newspapers to press for the vote, refusing to stay silent and submissive as was expected of women at this time.
Campaigns in Australia were more peaceful than elsewhere, but, like those marching for justice last week, suffragists were very much motivated by anger and frustration. They wanted to make a splash and used spectacle to bring attention to their efforts.
In 1891, Victorian women collected a massive 30,000 signatures on a 260-metre-long “monster petition”.
Although unsuccessful at the time, the scale of these efforts revealed the force of women’s desire for change.
It is important to note the suffragists were almost exclusively concerned with the rights of white women like themselves. Aboriginal women — who endured even greater and more institutionalised forms of discrimination and violence — were not included in their vision for a new society based on equal rights. Then just as now, feminism had a significant race problem.
In 1902, white Australian women became the first in the world to enjoy the dual rights of voting and standing for parliament. They revelled in their new-found status as enfranchised citizens. But as daughters of the empire, they felt strongly connected to their British “sisters” and despaired they remained voteless after decades of protest. Some even travelled to Britain and contributed to its increasingly spectacular suffrage struggle.
One Australian who captured imaginations in Britain was the performer and activist, Muriel Matters.
She was incensed by British women’s second-class status and, in 1908, famously chained herself to the iron grille separating the ladies’ gallery from the rest of the House of Commons, proclaiming “We have been behind this insulting grille too long!”
Both she and the grille — which many women saw as a symbol of their oppression — were removed in a dramatic scene, and Matters was sent to Holloway Prison.
The following year, Matters took her protest to the skies. Laden with a megaphone and 25 kilograms of flyers, and with a huge grin on her face, she crossed London in an airship emblazoned with the words “Votes for Women”.
There was a joyousness in this act of defiance. As Matters said: “If we want to go up in the air, neither the police nor anyone else can keep us down”.
Vida Goldstein was another Australian who made waves in London. In 1911, she was invited by Emmeline Pankhurst — whose suffrage organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union, was infamous for its militant tactics — to travel to London, where she participated in the Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession.
The scale of this event was huge. Over 40,000 people marched four miles across the city, in what Goldstein described as “the most amazing triumph of beauty and organisation”. They were watched by great crowds of spectators and ended with a rally at the Royal Albert Hall.
Goldstein, along with Margaret Fisher (the Australian prime minister’s wife) and Emily McGowen (the NSW premier’s wife), led the Australian contingent. This group carried a banner designed by Australian artist Dora Meeson Coates. It was adorned with the figures of two women — representing Britain and Australia — and the words “Trust the women mother as I have done”.
Vivid imagery and clever slogans continue to be part of feminist protests today.
The suffrage protests of the late 19th and early 20th centuries used spectacle to draw attention to women’s grievances. They were driven not only by anger and frustration, but also an enduring sense of hope that sustained them in the face of adversity.
The roar of Women’s Liberation
The many protest marches of the Women’s Liberation era of the 1960s and 1970s were also driven in good part by anger. They were spurred, among others, by issues of sex: legalising abortion; access to the pill; the sexual double standard; objectification of women’s bodies; sexual harassment; and violence against women.
The anger was palpable in the size and noise of the marches, the protesters’ willingness to disrupt city streets and public spaces, the eagerness to shock spectators through casual styles of dress, and the deployment of both occasional profanities and popular music.
Just as rage and roar have been used to describe the events surrounding the March4Justice, the Women’s Liberation anthem written and sung by Australian Helen Reddy featured the lines: “I am Woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore”.
Yet there was also a joy to some demonstrations of this protest era, especially the Women’s Liberation marches that allowed feminists to ventilate their rage, to prove to the world and themselves they were strong in number, sisterhood really was powerful and there were plenty of women who weren’t going to take it anymore.
Both the anger and the joy are well documented in the recent film Brazen Hussies. Brazen Hussies tells the story of the Australian Women’s Liberation movement from 1965 to 1975, covering its roots and rise.
Catherine Dwyer’s film provides insight into the anger fuelling the movement, from women’s individual stories of pain and injustice — the awful grief and trauma of having your baby taken from you because you weren’t married, the fury of being paid less for comparable work just because you were a woman, the trials of being a single mother, the enraging burden of shame due to the sexual double standard. And it covers the movement’s exclusion of Indigenous women and, to some extent, of lesbians through interviews with people like Pat O’Shane and Lilla Watson. https://www.youtube.com/embed/sTOccDdT0Gg?wmode=transparent&start=0
But there are also the triumphs and achievements: the legislative victories, the intellectual joys of feminist insights, the growing visibility of the movement.
That Australian Women’s Liberation was also marked by a sense of fun is perhaps best shown by a key event sparking the movement. On March 31, 1965, three Brisbane women dramatically protested their exclusion from the front bar at the Regatta Hotel in Toowong. When they were refused service (as was customary at the time for women in a front bar), two of the women chained themselves to the bar footrail, and the third took the key and threw it into the river.
It took hours for the police to remove the chain, and the event won an enormous amount of publicity.
Merle Thornton, Rosalie Bognor and Elaine Dignan were consciously playing on history when they staged this event, evoking the proclivity of suffragettes to chain themselves to fixed objects. It was also a clear echo of the moment when Muriel Matters chained herself to the grille in the House of Commons over 50 years before. https://www.youtube.com/embed/GRTf_B5n4lc?wmode=transparent&start=0
The fact protesters at the March4Justice were urged to wear black, and many did, signals a vital difference in its overall emotional affect compared to such earlier moments of fun.
The sombre colour of the rallies on March 15 was in stark contrast to the international suffragettes’ customary white dresses (with green and purple sashes), or the Women’s Liberation style of blue denim and colourful t-shirts, hippy skirts and dresses.
Black is the colour of sorrow, which was evident last Monday alongside the anger: sorrow at the terrible pain and suffering of women who are harassed, assaulted and raped, and not able to speak up, or are denied justice.
And sorrow at the fact women are still being harassed, assaulted and raped.
But even stronger than the sorrow was the anger at the Morrison government’s failure to deal with the assaults and allegations, or even to send a representative to the protest happening at its front door.
Fighting gender-based violence in 2021
Looking back at the history of feminist protest highlights striking continuities in the nature of gender-based violence and discrimination over time.
It shows the various ways women’s bodies have been controlled and abused.
It reveals how feminists have persistently protested their subordination, taking up space and refusing to be silenced. Anger, frustration and despair have driven people to action. Optimism, resilience and joy have empowered women to keep fighting even in the face of significant barriers.
21st century feminists are building on a substantial legacy of women’s protest. They are also grappling with the limits of feminisms past and present.
Indigenous women, leaders and community groups participated in many of the rallies around the country last week, drawing attention to the extensive trauma First Nations women have endured and continue to face. Their presence called for feminists to meaningfully engage with issues of race and to help end systemic injustice in the era of Black Lives Matter.
Trans and non-binary activists are calling for recognition gender-based violence disproportionately affects gender-diverse people. Feminists of the past largely viewed their fight through a gender binary. The challenge for today’s activists is to move beyond this.
Intersectionality exists as an ideal; the challenge now is to meaningfully put it into practice.
It remains to be seen what will come of the March4Justice and whether it lasts as a genuinely transformative cultural moment. What is sure, despite the many hurdles they have faced, Australian feminists have consistently found creative and captivating ways to express their indignation and visions for a better future. Feminists today can find inspiration in — and learn from — the various moments and the people who have shaped this history.
Brazen Hussies is now available on ABC iView, and will be broadcast nationally on ABC TV on Monday 5 April at 8.30 pm.
The recent flooding in New South Wales is consistent with what we might expect as climate change continues.
Australia’s natural rainfall patterns are highly variable. This means the influence climate change has on any single weather event is difficult to determine; the signal is buried in the background of a lot of climatic “noise”.
But as our planet warms, the water-holding capacity of the lower atmosphere increases by around 7% for every 1℃ of warming. This can cause heavier rainfall, which in turn increases flood risk.
The oceans are also warming, especially at the surface. This drives up both evaporation rates and the transport of moisture into weather systems. This makes wet seasons and wet events wetter than usual.
So while Australia has always experienced floods, disasters like the one unfolding in NSW are likely to become more frequent and intense as climate change continues.
Understanding the basics
To understand how a warming world is influencing the water cycle, it’s helpful to return to the theory.
From year to year, Australia’s climate is subject to natural variability generated by the surrounding Pacific, Indian and Southern oceans. The dominant drivers for a given year set up the background climate conditions that influence rainfall and temperature.
However, Australia’s climate variability is no longer influenced by natural factors alone. Australia’s climate has warmed by 1.4℃ since national records began in 1910, with most of the warming occurring since 1970. Human-caused greenhouse emissions have influenced Australian temperatures in our region since 1950.
This warming trend influences the background conditions under which both extremes of the rainfall cycle will operate as the planet continues to warm. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture (higher water vapour content), which can lead to more extreme rainfall events.
During these events, easterly winds intensify and oceans around Australia warm. This is associated with the Walker Circulation – a giant seesaw of atmospheric pressure that influences the distribution of warm ocean waters across the Pacific Ocean.
Oceanographers from UNSW studied the exceptional event. They demonstrated how a warmer ocean increased the likelihood of extreme rain during that event, primarily through increased transport of moist air along the coast.
Their analysis highlighted how long‐term ocean warming can modify rain-producing systems, increasing the probability of extreme rainfall during La Niña events.
It is important to point out that changes in large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns are still not as well understood as fundamental changes in thermodynamics. However, because regional rainfall changes will be influenced by both factors, it will take researchers time to tease everything out.
So what about climate change?
The theoretical changes to the global water cycle are well understood. However, determining the contribution of natural and human influences on climate variability and extremes – known as “attribution” – is still an emerging science.
More studies are needed to distinguish natural or “background” rainfall variability from recent human-caused changes to the water cycle. This is particularly the case in a country like Australia, which has very high yearly rainfall variability. This contrasts with some regions of the Northern Hemisphere with less variable rainfall, where a clear climate change signal has already emerged.
Right now, La Niña conditions are decaying in the Pacific Ocean. As expected, the 2020–2021 La Niña has brought above-average rainfall to much of eastern Australia. This helped ease the severe drought conditions across eastern Australia since 2017, particularly in NSW.
What’s interesting about the 2020–2021 La Niña is that it was weak compared with historical events. The relationship between La Niña and rainfall is generally weaker in coastal NSW than further inland. However, it’s concerning that this weak La Niña caused flooding comparable to the iconic floods of the 1950s and 1970s.
The rainfall totals for the current floods are yet to be analysed. However, early figures reveal the enormity of the downpours. For example, over the week to March 23, the town of Comboyne, southwest of Port Macquarie, recorded an extraordinary 935mm of rainfall. This included three successive days with more than 200mm.
The NSW coast is no stranger to extreme rainfall – there have been five events in the past decade with daily totals exceeding 400mm. However, the current event is unusual because of its duration and geographic extent.
It’s also worth noting the current extreme rainfall in NSW was associated with a coastal trough, not an East Coast Low. Many of the region’s torrential rainfall events in the past have resulted from East Coast Lows, although their rainfall is normally more localised than has been the case in this widespread event.
Remember that as the air warms, its water-holding capacity increases, particularly over the oceans. Current ocean temperatures around eastern and northern Australia are about 1℃ warmer than the long-term average, and closer to 1.5℃ warmer than average off the NSW coast. These warmer conditions are likely to be fuelling the systems driving the extreme rainfall and associated flooding in NSW.
A nation exposed
Weather and climate are not the only influences on extreme flood events. Others factors include the shape and size of water catchments, the presence of hard surfaces in urban areas (which cant’t absorb water), and the density of human settlement in flood-prone areas.
It’s sobering to think the Hawkesbury River once peaked 6 metres higher than what we’re seeing right now. Imagine the potential future flooding caused by an East Coast Low during strong La Niña conditions.
It will take time before scientists can provide a detailed analysis of the 2020–2021 La Niña event. But it’s crystal clear that Australia is very exposed to damage caused by extreme rainfall. Our theoretical understanding of water cycle changes tells us these events will only become more intense as our planet continues to warm.
‘No day ever started well with six dozen raw chickens, and today of all days it was stealing the sweetness out of his daydreams.’
Glasgow, 1992. We meet Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain working at a supermarket. He has just turned sixteen and is trying to combine schooling with a part-time job. He does not receive adult wages and struggles to keep his things neat in the boarding house where he lives. But Shuggie has dreams.
‘Tomorrow was something to look forward to.’
But what about the past? The story shifts back to 1981, to public housing in Sighthill, Glasgow, to Agnes Bain, Shuggie’s mother:
‘To be thirty-nine and have her husband and her three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure.’
Unemployment is rife, housing is scarce. Agnes is used to getting what she wants, but it is never enough for her. She craves different, excitement, more. She left her first husband for Shug Bain (‘Big Shug’) a philandering taxi-driver and dreams of having her own house. Agnes is bored, and when she is bored, she drinks.
Things become worse when Shug moves her to Pithead in 1982. She is away from family and friends. Living in a house in an area mostly occupied by unemployed miners and their families. After her older children leave, Shuggie tries to look after her. He feels, as so many children in his situation feel, responsible. He is sure that he can make her better if only he tries harder. He knows how to help her:
‘Shuggie arranged three tea mugs: one with tap water to dry the cracks in her throat, one with milk to line her sour stomach, and the third with a mixture of the flat leftovers of Special Brew and stout that he had gathered from around the house and frothed together with a fork. He knew that this was the one she would reach for first, the one that would stop the crying in her bones.’
If Shuggie is 16 in 1992, then he can only be 6 in 1982. He is carrying the weight of responsibility for his mother and of being different from the other boys. Agnes makes a sad attempt to get one of her male neighbours to be a role model for Shuggie, trading in the only currency she has. To no avail.
This is a heartbreaking story of addiction and love. Agnes is not unaware of the impact of her drinking, but she is in the grips of an addiction. She manages to stay sober for a period, which makes her eventual relapse even harder to bear.
The best advice given to Shuggie is from his brother ‘Leek’ (Alexander):
‘Don’t make the same mistake as me. She’s never going to get better. When the time is right you have to leave. The only thing you can save is yourself.’
What does the future hold for Shuggie? I’d like to think that his story continues on, he acquires the education he wants and finds a place for himself. He did his best for Agnes, but she was beyond help. Addiction is a devastating, destructive, sneaky condition. Especially alcoholism, where some vulnerable people can slide from acceptable social drinking into the abyss of dependency.
This is such a powerful novel with origins in Mr Stuart’s own experience. It’s a novel based in a sad, gritty reality. It’s a novel that will stay with me.
‘The world went on its way. It was business as usual. Until it wasn’t.’
Umiko Wada, widowed, works as a secretary to Kazuto Kodaka, a private detective in Tokyo. Her mother wants her to remarry, but Wada is comfortable with the current orderliness of her life: managing her boss’s diary and keeping his paperwork under control. But then Kodaka takes on a case which changes everything. He is approached by a woman, Mimori Takenaga, who believes that her father was murdered in London in 1977.
As part of the investigation, Wada leaves Tokyo for London. She is to meet an Englishman, Martin Caldwell who may have some information.
And from here, the action escalates. Kodaka is killed, Wada’s contact in London goes missing. Wada is resourceful and follows leads to Devon and then to Iceland. There is more than one secret being hidden, and more than one person who will kill to make sure that those secrets remain hidden.
This is a complex thriller with several well-developed characters, some interesting plot twists, and plenty of action. Will Wada find the answers she is seeking? A dramatic, tense climax on a beach in Cornwall brings much of the story to a conclusion. But Wada has a taste for investigating now, and there are a couple of loose ends…
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I hope that Wada finally finished her reread of ‘The Makioka Sisters’.
Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Random House, UK for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.
Today, thousands of Australians are expected to march around the country, angry and fed up at the treatment of women. In Canberra they will form a ring of protest around Parliament House.
This comes after Melbourne academic and entrepreneur Janine Hendry wondered how many “extremely disgruntled” women it would take to link arms around parliament to tell the government “we’ve had enough” (the answer is about 4,000).
It follows Brittany Higgins’ allegation of rape in a minister’s office in 2019 and an allegation Attorney-General Christian Porter raped a 16-year-old in 1988 (which he denies). It also comes amid multiple claims of a toxic work culture at Parliament House.
While Higgins’ case has sparked numerous inquiries, she claims she was not supported in the aftermath of her alleged assault. Regarding Porter, the government is resisting calls for an independent inquiry, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison declaring him an “innocent man under our law”.
As Australia heads into another pre-election season, questions have been raised about the potential impact of recent events.
Women are obviously a significant demographic, and data shows they are already drifting away from the Liberal Party.
So, what’s at stake when it comes to women voters and the Liberals at the next election?
Gender and voting behaviour
The Australian Election Study is a nationally representative survey of voter behaviour that has run after all federal elections since 1987.
In 2019, it showed that although the Liberal-National Coalition won the federal election, the Liberal Party attracted the lowest proportion of women’s votes since 1987.
While 45% of men gave their first preference to the Liberal Party, just 35% of women did so. Parties on the political left also had an advantage among women, with 6% more women than men voting for the Greens, and a smaller margin of 3% more women voting for Labor.
Looking at the gender gap over time, we see it has actually reversed over the past 30 years. Back in the 1990s, women were slightly more likely to vote for the Liberal party, and men were more likely to vote Labor.
This has gradually switched, so men now prefer the Liberal Party and women prefer Labor. The gender gap in voting Liberal is now at its greatest point on record.
But womens’ voting behaviour can also be attributed to major changes in Australia’s major political parties. Back in the early 1990s, women were similarly underrepresented in both the major parties — just 13% of parliamentarians in 1990 were women.
Since then, Labor has dramatically increased its proportion of women in parliament, reaching 47% through party quotas as of the last election. The Liberal Party on the other hand, has made slower progress, reaching just 23% at the most recent election.
New research published in the journal Electoral Studies shows left-leaning women are more likely to support female candidates.
The Liberal Party’s ‘women problem’
So, even before the current crisis, the Liberal party was losing the electoral support of women.
The Liberal Party’s “women problem” has become a common criticism, not just by political opponents but also prominent Liberal Party figures including former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The current crisis has the potential to exacerbate the gender gap in voting behaviour.
That said, election results are often influenced by the most important issues at the time of the election. The salience of different issues — shaped to a large degree by media coverage — can change considerably over time.
Approval ratings of Morrison from the Essential Poll show he lost a lot of support during the bushfires in late 2019 and early 2020, which he was perceived as handling poorly.
Since then, Morrison has benefited from Australia’s relative success in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of a phenomenon known as “rallying ‘round the flag,” voters have supported him and the government during this time of crisis.
The electoral impact of current events will depend not only on the government’s response to the sexual assault allegations (and voter satisfaction with those responses), but also which issues are salient at election time. A historical sexual assault allegation against former Labor leader Bill Shorten was not a major factor in the lead up to the last election (he denies the claims and in 2014, police said they would not proceed with charges).
Interestingly, the Australian Election Study shows trust in government reached its lowest point on record in 2019 with just one in four voters believing that people in government could be trusted. In contrast, three quarters thought those in government were more interested in looking after themselves.
On the issue of sexual assault, recent polling data also suggests the government is similarly perceived as putting itself first. Of those polled, 65% agreed “the government has been more interested in protecting itself than the interests of those who have been assaulted”. This includes half of Coalition voters, and a similar proportion of men and women.