Blaming migrants won’t solve Western Sydney’s growing pains



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Many people in culturally diverse populations in Western Sydney have lived in Australia for many years, if not several generations.
Shutterstock

Shanthi Robertson, Western Sydney University and Kristine Aquino, University of Technology Sydney

Population growth has profound impacts on Australian life, and sorting myths from facts can be difficult. This article is part of our series, Is Australia Full?, which aims to help inform a wide-ranging and often emotive debate.


Western Sydney is one of the fastest-growing regions in Australia. It’s also one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse, as a key arrival point for refugees and new migrants when they first settle in Australia.

Various public figures and media outlets have connected asylum-seeker intake and immigration to traffic congestion and queues at hospitals in Western Sydney.

However, this kind of reaction can pin the blame for infrastructure and affordability problems on culturally diverse populations who may have already lived in Australia for many years, if not several generations.

Growth from international and domestic migration

Greater Western Sydney includes Blacktown, the Blue Mountains, Camden,
Campbelltown, Canterbury-Bankstown, Cumberland, Fairfield
Hawkesbury, Liverpool, Parramatta, Penrith, the Hills Shire and Wollondilly.

We examined census data compiled by WESTIR Ltd, a non-profit research organisation based in Western Sydney, partly funded by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services. These data show that Greater Western Sydney’s population increased by 9.8% between 2011 and 2016. Over the decade from 2006 to 2016, it grew by 16%.

About 55% of those living there were born in Australia, and about 39% where born elsewhere (the remainder did not state their place of birth). Most put English or Australian as their first response when asked about their ancestry.

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New births are slightly down in the region, meaning growth is coming from other sources. This includes new international migration arrivals, but also incoming residents from other parts of New South Wales and interstate.

Greater Western Sydney has long-established cultural and linguistic diversity. The percentage of residents born overseas has increased from 34.1% in 2006 to 38.7% in 2016. Overall, the west accounts for 50.2% of the overseas-born population for the whole of metropolitan Sydney.

Reasoned debates on sustainable migration intake levels are a crucial part of discussions of urban and regional growth. There are valid criticisms of “Big Australia” policies, based on resource and environmental sustainability.

But while the number of new arrivals settling in Western Sydney has increased steadily since the second world war, with a significant jump over the last decade reflecting accelerated skilled migration policies to fill labour shortages, the majority of overseas-born living in the region are long-term settlers who have been in Australia for ten years or more.

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Increasing diversity does not always mean more new migrant settlers

The data show that 64% of Western Sydney residents have at least one parent born overseas. This is greater than the number of those born overseas. This correlates with national data indicating that Australian-born second-generation migrant residents outnumber those born outside of Australia.

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So while critics may look at non-white Western Sydney residents and assume they are recent migrants, what they’re often really seeing is multiple generations of multiculturalism. Most of these people are long-term local residents, not necessarily a sudden influx of new arrivals.

In addition, not all overseas-born residents are permanent settlers. Australia takes far larger numbers of temporary entrants than it has in the past. Most of these temporary visa holders, such as international students and temporary skilled workers, live in major metropolitan areas and their surrounds, like Western Sydney.

While some portion of these populations do stay on longer-term, they are not all permanent settlers who will add to long-term population growth. Net migration figures, which take into account people who depart Australia every year as well as arrive, and exclude short-term visitors, have generally been decreasing over the past six years.

Who do we define as ‘migrants’?

New Zealand citizens moving under Trans-Tasman agreements and migrants from the United Kingdom are still among the largest migrant groups in Greater Western Sydney.

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In many local government areas in Western Sydney – such as Wollondilly, the Hills Shire, Penrith, Hawkesbury and Campbelltown – England and/or New Zealand feature in the top five countries of birth of overseas-born residents.

If anxieties about migration and population in Western Sydney are based on genuine sustainability concerns and not xenophobia, why target mostly refugees and non-white migrants? Why focus only on areas with large non-white and non-English-speaking background populations?

Migrants do use infrastructure, but also drive economic and jobs growth

It’s never as simple as one new arrival “using up” an allocation of limited resources, whether jobs, housing, or seats on trains. In fact, new arrivals fill the gaps of an ageing workforce, and current migration policies are targeted to favour younger migrants and specific skills shortages.

Western Sydney, like many regions in Australia, has an ageing population. Residents aged 65-74 years increased from 6.2% in 2011 to 7.2% in 2016.

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Large-scale infrastructure – whether the slated new airport or the Westmead hospital – requires young and often skilled workers.

Nationally, recently arrived overseas-born residents have a lower median age and a higher level of education than Australian-born residents.

Infrastructure problems are also problems of policy, planning and funding, rather than just population numbers. Problems in transport and health infrastructure in Western Sydney cannot be easily solved by reactive anti-immigration attitudes or policies.

Cuts to programs like the humanitarian program or skilled temporary work visas, where the intake numbers remain relatively small as a proportion of the overall population, will not solve those infrastructure problems.

Western Sydney is growing, and with growth comes growing pains. But equating the region’s rich cultural diversity with a population crisis is the wrong message to send.


The ConversationYou can read other articles in the Is Australia Full? series here.

Shanthi Robertson, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University and Kristine Aquino, Lecturer in Global Studies, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Partial exclusion for Lee Rhiannon after marathon special Greens meeting


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The federal parliamentary Greens are taking on the power of the party’s hard left NSW branch.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Greens have imposed a partial exclusion from their partyroom on radical New South Wales senator Lee Rhiannon, after her behaviour over the schools legislation.

Her colleagues were angry that she authorised a leaflet urging people to lobby senators to vote against the bill, on which the Greens were negotiating with the government. The nine other Green MPs wrote to the party’s national council about her conduct.

While the letter cited the leaflet, the concern about Rhiannon went further. Party sources said they had not been informed that she had been bound by the party’s NSW branch to oppose the legislation. Eventually all Green senators voted against the bill, after the government did a deal with ten other crossbenchers.

The issues with Rhiannon involved trust in her and the ability of the hardline NSW branch to bind MPs – a power it is accorded under the party’s federal constitution.

At a marathon meeting of more than four hours in Melbourne on Wednesday, it was decided that the structural problem needed to be resolved.

The partyroom asked the national council to work with Greens NSW “to end the practice of NSW MPs being bound to vote against the decision of the Australian Greens partyroom”.

This was supported by all MPs except Rhiannon.

The partyroom also passed a motion “that NSW senators be excluded from partyroom discussions and decisions on contentious government legislation, including within their portfolio responsibilities, until these issues are resolved”. At present Rhiannon is the only NSW senator.

Rhiannon and Adam Bandt, the Greens’ only lower house member, voted against the motion.

In a statement after the meeting, acting whip Nick McKim said: “To function as a national partyroom, and to be a genuine alternative to politics as usual, we need to have faith and trust in our processes.”

The ConversationThere is some uncertainty about how a battle with the NSW branch – controlled by the “watermelon” faction, a description reflecting its hard left position – will play out. Some in the party fear the situation could be inflamed, while others will welcome the branch being finally taken on.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

No flies on Australia’s richest union


Michael West, University of Sydney

Imagine a company that received millions of dollars in government grants each year, paid no tax as it held charitable status, owned recruitment agencies and also owned a law firm that fought against penalty rates for young workers and workplace leave for victims of domestic violence.

There is such a company. It is called the NSW Business Chamber Limited. Its financial statements show the chamber recorded revenue of A$190 million last year, of which $5.8 million came in government grants.

It is difficult to tell without more intimate knowledge, but the accounts suggest the folk at the chamber may be living high on the hog.

“Direct salary and other costs of providing services” was $101 million last year (up sharply from $78 million in the prior year). A further $68 million was “employee benefits expense”, while the bill for cars was $2.8 million. The travel and entertainment chit was $2.5 million.

Chief executive Stephen Cartwright said today that the NSW Business Chamber had a strong focus on assisting SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises) and conducting not-for-profit work such as training and apprentice schemes and advocacy. It was a “union” of sorts, he said, and like other unions it was a not-for-profit organisation.

Asked whether it was appropriate for the chamber to be claiming tax subsidies and government grants in view of the fact that it owned a law firm and recruitment agencies run to make a profit (and which, by their chamber parentage, immunised them from tax), Cartwright said these businesses helped to finance programs such as the chamber’s boot camp for unemployed youth in Western Sydney.

According to its financial statements, the chamber’s “core mission” is to “create a better Australia by maximising the outcome and potential of Australian businesses”.

There is a broader public interest issue at play here. While
other unions are struggling financially, the chamber is sitting on a plush investment portfolio of $184 million in shares, bonds and trusts, besides $13 million in cash.

The chamber owns the law firm, Australian Business Lawyers & Advisors Limited (ABL), and although ABL does not file financial accounts – as these are consolidated in the chamber’s accounts – it does appear to have a robust workload.

This week, ABL’s chief executive, Nigel Ward, and director of workplace relations, Luis Izzo, won a case in the Fair Work Commission that reduces penalty rates for workers in the hospitality industry.

These were big proceedings, which ran for 39 days, featured 130 lay witnesses, a dozen expert witnesses and nearly 6,000 public submissions.

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) regulates charities at a federal level. Its records show the chamber was registered in 2014 under the criteria “purposes beneficial to the general public and analogous to the other charitable purposes”.

While pursuing charitable purposes, ABL, on behalf of the chamber, has appeared in a raft of common issue proceedings in recent years acting for employers against union and employee claims including:

• award flexibility

• leave for blood and bone marrow donors

• casual and part-time employment

• family and domestic violence leave.

In the latter proceedings, the ABL’s Nigel Ward opposed an ACTU claim and argued against leave entitlements for victims of domestic violence.

Cartwright “strongly disagreed” with the proposition that arguing against entitlements for low-paid workers and victims of domestic violence was not a charitable exercise.

“We are required to be there by the Fair Work Commission,” he said. “It’s a necessary part of the workplace relations system … Our job is to go down there and act in the best interest of the country and employment. Without this, capital walks away.”

On the matter of how businesses operating for a profit could be consolidated into the chamber’s accounts and therefore not pay tax, he said this practice was appropriate as the cashflow was expended in not-for-profit activities assisting the chamber’s 13,000 members.

The $2.8 million expense for motor vehicles was for a fleet used by customers, often in regional areas, Cartwright said, and executives did not have company cars.

The chamber’s auditor, PwC, picked up $437,000 last year and $565,000 the year before and appears to have a conflict of interest in that its non-audit fees for tax advice and such exceeded its audit fees.

The chamber has also made political donations disclosures over the years. Both major parties have been beneficiaries, with the bulk of donations going to the Liberal Party. It has also funded election advertising in NSW. However, Cartwright said the chamber was “fiercely non-political”.


The ConversationThis column, co-published by The Conversation with michaelwest.com.au, is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

Michael West, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘Liveable’ Sydney has clear winners and losers


Roberta Ryan, University of Technology Sydney and Yvette Selim, University of Technology Sydney

Sydney is frequently placed in the top ten of global “liveability” rankings. But despite the growing popularity of the buzzword liveability, questions remain about what it actually entails. What does a liveable city look like? How do we measure liveability? And, most importantly, liveable for whom?

The idea of liveability and liveability rankings has some usefulness. However, such rankings mask the disadvantaged, marginalised and excluded within cities, including Sydney.

In yet-to-be-published research, our analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data from 1991, 2001 and 2011 indicates there are clear “winners” and “losers” in Sydney. Despite the strong economic growth in the 1990s, there is still a clear divide between eastern and western Sydney.

Who defines and rates liveability?

The term liveability has proliferated in planning and public discussions, but few definitions are provided.

Liveability is usually captured by published indices. Broadly speaking, there are three categories of indices: those that focus on decision-making from the perspective of individual lifestyle preferences, the firm, and policymakers.

The best-known liveability indices are developed commercially. These include the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index, the Mercer Quality of Life Survey, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Cities of Opportunity Quality of Life, and the Global Liveable Cities Index.

More recently, Sydney suburbs have been ranked according to various liveability indices (such as Domain Liveable Sydney 2016 and the Urban Living Index). However, overall these liveability indices tend to simplify or disregard crucial factors.

These indices tell a particular and incomplete story about the city. When viewed through the lens of spatial geography, it is clear that Sydney’s ranking as a liveable city requires greater recognition of the ways in which some Sydneysiders experience inequality and disadvantage.

What did our study find?

We compared ABS data from 1991 or 2001 to the data from 2011, focusing on four issues: income, unemployment, travel to work, and housing tenure.

Our analysis of employment found that the proportion of people employed in Greater Sydney slightly increased (94% in 2001 compared with 94.3% in 2011) and the unemployed decreased (6% in 2001 compared with 5.7% in 2011). People in full-time employment decreased while the number of people working part-time increased, bringing it almost on par with the Australian figure.

However, the data does not reveal the disparities in people’s incomes according to where they live. When we viewed the data spatially, it was evident that people who live in the central city, inner east, inner west and the north shore of Sydney have higher weekly incomes than those living in the western parts of Sydney.

Income levels in Sydney

Highest-income areas are shown in red, with lowest-income areas in blue.
Author provided

Our analysis also found spatial disparities in the way people commute to work. Driving remained the main form of travel (49.2% in 1991 compared to 53.8% in 2011), demonstrating continued car dependence in Sydney.

The disparity between east and west was evident in people’s opinions and preferences about travel. People in eastern Sydney felt more able to live close to where they work (72% compared with 62% in western Sydney).

People in western Sydney were less likely to feel they had the transport they needed (86% compared with 91% in eastern Sydney). But, interestingly, they also felt that transport was less important than eastern Sydney residents.

Finally, our analysis of housing tenure over the 20 years to 2011 found the level of outright home ownership fell by almost 10%. The proportion of people with mortgages increased (26.6% in 1991 compared with 33.2% in 2011), as did the number of people renting (28% in 1991 compared to 30.4% in 2011).

Housing tenure in Sydney

Areas with highest rates of outright home ownership are shown in blue, with areas of highest rates of mortgages in red.
Author provided

To sum up, the winners: live in the city, inner east, inner west and parts of northern suburbs, have relatively easy access to well-paid work, and own their homes.

The losers: live further from the concentrations of economic activity (jobs), have higher job insecurity, longer travel-to-work times, poorer transport choices and connections, lower incomes, more rental stress, less time with families, and poorer reported wellbeing.

Our analysis aligns with other recent research – see, for example, findings by the Grattan Institute, the Australian Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development and the Australian Housing Urban Research Institute.

How can liveability be better shared?

How then do the various liveability indices account for spatial inequality and disadvantage? In 2012, the Economist Intelligence Unit added a category based on “spatial adjustments”. The Spatial Adjusted Liveability Index now makes up 25% of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability score.

Various programs and policies have also been designed to tackle liveability. These are helpful initiatives, but a more holistic and interdisciplinary approach is needed. Approaches to liveability need to be integrated (both place-based and people-based).

  • First, to be effective, institutions need to decrease fragmented responses.

  • Second, greater social inclusion is vital. This includes participatory approaches to planning and equitable access to jobs, services and amenity.

  • Third, cities need co-operative governance whereby citizens can affect decision-making through legitimate involvement.

The ConversationA greater focus on these recommendations might bring Sydney a little closer to being a liveable city for all.

Roberta Ryan, Professor and Director, UTS Institute for Public Policy and Governance and UTS Centre for Local Government, University of Technology Sydney and Yvette Selim, Senior Researcher and Lecturer, UTS Institute for Public Policy and Governance, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Government to build second Sydney airport



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Malcolm Turnbull expects the second Sydney airport to inject more than $1.9 billion into the economy during construction.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The federal government has confirmed it will build Sydney’s second airport after the Sydney Airport Group, owner of Kingsford Smith, announced on Tuesday it would not take up its right of first refusal to construct and operate the Badgerys Creek airport. The Conversation

Sydney Airport Group chief executive Kerrie Mather said despite the opportunities the new airport would present, “the risks associated with the development and operation are considerable and endure for many decades, without commensurate returns for our investors”.

Next week’s budget will give details of the western Sydney project, which will be part of the budget’s major infrastructure focus.

The government has been paving the way for the airport project and its plan to inject funds into a Melbourne-to-Brisbane freight line by distinguishing between “good” and “bad” government debt. In broad terms, it says “good” debt is for investment that brings growth, while “bad” debt is borrowing for recurrent spending.

In a joint statement, Malcolm Turnbull and Urban Infrastructure Minister Paul Fletcher said the project was vitally important for western Sydney, Sydney, and the nation.

They said the airport would inject more than A$1.9 billion into the economy during the construction phrase. “It is expected to deliver 9000 new jobs to western Sydney by the 2030s, and 60,000 in the long term,” they said.

They said the government had been planning for either the acceptance or rejection by the Sydney Airport Group, and was “well positioned to move forward”.

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, said often governments had to step in for the early stages of a nation-building project but that always should be a catalyst for private sector investment in the longer term.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Merged minor parties chase votes on the right as identity crisis grips Coalition



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Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives party has amalgamated with Family First, which shares similar social conservative values.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Zareh Ghazarian, Monash University

Cory Bernardi entered a new phase of his political career by announcing this week that his nascent Australian Conservatives party was to merge with Family First. The Conversation

The merger makes sense. Both parties advance a socially conservative agenda; both have origins in South Australia. And the merger is a savvy response to the changes to the Senate voting system that were introduced in 2016.

Benefits of minor parties merging

The changes to the Senate voting system abolished the group voting ticket. So, parties can no longer make the same preference deals they had in the past.

Merging, however, will provide like-minded minor parties with benefits.

First, they will be able to consolidate their human and financial resources for election campaigns and the party’s day-to-day operations.

Second, by merging into a “super” minor party, they maximise their chances of winning Senate representation: they pool their electoral support.

This sense of electoral fragmentation has been a greater problem for minor parties on the right of the political spectrum. The Greens, after decades of evolution, appear to have consolidated their role as the lightning rod for voters from the left who are unhappy with the choices provided by the major parties.

No such party, however, exists on the right, where myriad minor parties with competing agendas are clamouring for attention.

Social conservatism

The Australian Conservatives and Family First shared similar policies on a range of issues. In particular, they opposed same-sex marriage and abortion, and expressed deep suspicion about the role humans have played in climate change.

Both parties also sought to advance “traditional” family values and have been sceptical of the socially progressive policies promoted by the likes of the Greens.

But their opposition to same-sex marriage contrasts with others on the right of political spectrum – such as Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm, who supports it.

In 2016, Family First won a national primary vote in the Senate of 1.38%. Its best performance was in South Australia, where Bob Day – who is to be replaced in the Senate by Lucy Gichuhi – won a seat after polling 2.87% of the statewide primary vote. Gichuhi, however, will sit as an independent – not as an Australian Conservatives senator.

Race and immigration

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation made a remarkable return to the Senate in 2016, almost 20 years after it first emerged. Reflecting an approach common to right-populist parties in other liberal democracies, One Nation was deeply concerned about race, migration and religion.

Led by the charismatic Hanson, the party sought to advance the interests of “ordinary” Australians in a political system that it believed was over-run by professional politicians and political elites.

At the 2016 election, One Nation won a national primary vote in the Senate of 4.29%. Its best performance was in Queensland, where 9.2% of the statewide vote garnered it two Senate seats. It holds four seats in the Senate.

Libertarian

In 2013, Leyonhjelm led the Liberal Democrats to an unexpected triumph when he won the party’s first seat in the Senate. Since then, he has built a high public profile by advancing his party’s agenda, which focuses on individual liberties and freedoms.

The Liberal Democrats advance free trade, freedom of choice, and winding back the welfare state. The party supports euthanasia, the use of cannabis, and same-sex marriage.

It is also in favour of citizens having the right to own firearms as well as ending prosecutions for victimless crimes, which it describes as illegal but not threatening the rights of anyone else. These include “crimes” such as abortion, public nudity and the consumption of pornography.

However, Leyonhjelm differs from One Nation’s positions on some economic issues. For example, he supports cuts to weekend penalty rates and the privatisation of state assets – in contrast to One Nation’s opposition to both of these measures.

In 2016, the Liberal Democrats won 2.17% of the national vote in the Senate. Leyonhjelm held onto his seat after winning 3.1% of the statewide vote in New South Wales.

Liberal-National Coalition

While the minor parties mentioned above are advancing specific policy agendas, the major right-of-centre force appears to be grappling with internal divisions about the direction of its policies.

The belief that One Nation, Family First and the Liberal Democrats are chipping support off the Coalition has prompted some MPs to agitate for the party to promote more socially conservative policies. Former prime minister Tony Abbott has continued to advocate for the Liberal Party to shift to the right.

As a major right-of-centre force, however, the Liberal Party risks alienating socially progressive voters who have supported the party in the past. And the sense of a growing threat from minor parties on the right may be overstated.

As the electoral performances demonstrate, these minor parties were successful in 2016 thanks primarily to the double-dissolution election making it easier to win seats in the Senate. These parties would struggle to have as much success under the new electoral system at an ordinary half-Senate election.

Notwithstanding these elements, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s recent announcements of changes to citizenship laws suggest the Coalition leadership is responding to demands of the right from within the partyroom. Whether these will be enough to placate those seeking greater shifts to the right remains to be seen.

Zareh Ghazarian, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Northern NSW is no stranger to floods, but this one was different


Joelle Gergis, University of Melbourne

The devastating flood damage wreaked by Tropical Cyclone Debbie has left many residents in northern New South Wales facing an enormous cleanup that could take months. The Conversation

Any Lismore local will tell you that flooding is a fact of life in the Northern Rivers. In the floods of 1954 and 1974, the Wilsons River rose to a record 12.17 metres. This time around, the river peaked at 11.59m, breaching the flood levee built in 2005 for the first time.

So what are the conditions that caused those historic floods? And are they any different to the conditions of 2017?

Like the current flood, cyclonic rains also caused the 1954 and 1974 events. But unlike those past events, both of which were preceded by prolonged wet weather, almost all of the extreme rainfall from ex-Tropical Cyclone Debbie fell within 24 hours.

More interesting still is the fact that we are not currently experiencing La Niña conditions, which have historically formed the backdrop to severe flooding in eastern Australia.

The 1954 flood was preceded by an east coast low from February 9-11, followed by a decaying tropical cyclone from February 19-22. Thirty people were killed as flood records were set in Lismore, Kyogle, Casino, Nimbin and Murwillumbah. Some places received more than 1,000mm of rain in 14 days.

In 1974, former Tropical Cyclone Zoe unleashed torrential rain over Lismore, Wyrallah and Coraki. From March 10-13, some stations received almost 1,000mm in just four days. One analysis described the flood as a once-in-70-year event.

This time around, the remains of Tropical Cyclone Debbie delivered extreme rainfall to northern NSW towns including Murwillumbah, Chinderah and Lismore, despite having crossed the coast several days earlier and more than 1,200km to the north. Floods as far apart as Rockhampton in central Queensland and northern New Zealand show the storm’s colossal area of influence.

During the event, 20 rainfall stations in Queensland and 11 sites in NSW recorded their wettest March day on record. Mullumbimby, in the Brunswick River catchment, received a staggering 925mm during March – over half the annual average in a single month – causing major flooding in the region.

The heaviest rainfall in the Wilsons River catchment was at Terania Creek, which received 627mm over March 30-31, 99% of it in the 24 hours from 3am on March 30. Lismore recorded 324.8mm of rain in the 18 hours to 3am on March 31, its wettest March day in more than 100 years. A little further out of town, floodwaters submerged the gauge at Lismore Airport, so unfortunately we do not have reliable figures for that site.

March 2017 rainfall across Australia. Tropical Cyclone Debbie’s track down the east coast is visible in the trail of above-average falls.
Bureau of Meteorology

The main difference between the current flooding and the 1954 and 1974 floods is that the previous events both occurred against a background of sustained La Niña conditions. These tend to deliver above-average tropical cyclone activity and high rainfall totals, which increase flood risk.

During the early 1970s, Australia experienced the longest period of La Niña conditions in the instrumental record. This unleashed phenomenal deluges across virtually the entire country. By the end of 1973, many catchments were already saturated as the wet season started early, culminating in the wettest January in Australia’s rainfall records.

In 1974 the Indian Ocean was also unusually warm (what meteorologists call a “negative Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) phase”), further enhancing rainfall in the region. When negative IOD events coincide with La Niña conditions in the tropical Pacific, the warm sea temperatures reinforce one another, resulting in more evaporation and increased rainfall. This double whammy resulted in the exceptionally wet conditions experienced across the country during 1974.

In January 1974, the Northern Territory, Queensland and Australia as a whole recorded their wettest month on record, while South Australia and New South Wales recorded their second-wettest January on record. Torrential monsoon rains in the gulf country of Queensland transformed the normally dry interior into vast inland seas, flooding all the way to Lake Eyre in the arid zone of South Australia.

Vast swathes of Australia were much wetter than average during the mid-1970s.
Bureau of Meteorology

In contrast, Tropical Cyclone Debbie formed under neutral conditions, rather than during a La Niña. In fact, the Bureau of Meteorology is currently on El Niño watch, meaning that there is double the normal risk of an El Niño event bringing low rainfall and high temperatures to Australia by mid-2017.

So, unlike the 1950s and 1970s, the current flooding happened despite the absence of conditions that have driven major flooding in the past. It seems extraordinary that such a damaging cyclone could develop under these circumstances, and deliver such high rainfall over such a short time. This suggests that other factors may be at play.

A rapidly warming climate means that storms are now occurring in a “super-charged” atmosphere. As temperatures increase, so does the water-holding capacity of the lower atmosphere. The oceans are also warming, especially at the surface, driving up evaporation rates. Global average surface temperature has already risen by about 1℃ above pre-industrial levels, leading to an increase of 7% in the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere.

Ocean evaporation, before and after ocean warming.
Climate Council

Of course, it is hard to determine the exact impact of climate change on individual storms. However, climate scientists are confident about the overall trends.

Australia’s land and oceans have warmed by 1℃ since 1910, with much of this warming occurring since 1970. This influences the background conditions under which both extremes of the rainfall cycle will operate as the planet continues to warm. We have high confidence that the warming trend will increase the intensity of extreme rainfall experienced in eastern Australia, including southeast Queensland and northern NSW.

While it will take more time to determine the exact factors that led to the extreme flooding witnessed in March 2017, we cannot rule out the role of climate change as a possible contributing factor.

CSIRO’s latest climate change projections predict that in a hotter climate we will experience intense dry spells interspersed with periods of increasingly extreme rainfall over much of Australia. Tropical cyclones are projected to be less frequent but more intense on average.

That potentially means longer and more severe droughts, followed by deluges capable of washing away houses, roads and crops. Tropical Cyclone Debbie’s formation after the exceptionally hot summer of 2016-2017 may well be a perfect case in point, and an ominous sign of things to come.

Joelle Gergis, ARC DECRA Climate Research Fellow, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.