Five days after a sudden volcanic eruptions on Whakaari/White Island, off the east coast of New Zealand, on Monday, emergency crews have retrieved six bodies and continue to search for two further victims.
The island is a tourist destination and 47 people were on it when it erupted on Monday afternoon.
Volcanologists at GeoNet, which operates a geological hazard monitoring system, described the eruption as impulsive and short-lived, with an ash plume that rose to more than three kilometres above the vent.
White Island is one of several volcanoes in New Zealand that can produce sudden explosive eruptions at any time. In this case, magma is shallow, and the heat and gases affect surface and ground water to form vigorous hydrothermal systems.
In these, water is trapped in pores of rocks in a super-heated state. Any external process, such as an earthquake, gas input from below, or even a change in the lake water level can tip this delicate balance and release the pressure on the hot and trapped water.
The resulting steam-driven eruption, also called a hydrothermal or phreatic eruption, can happen suddenly and with little to no warning. The expansion of water into steam is supersonic in speed and the liquid can expand to 1,700 times its original volume. This produces catastrophic impacts.
The expansion energy is enough to shatter solid rock, excavate craters and eject rock fragments and ash out to hundreds of metres away from the vent. We know of sites in New Zealand where material has been blasted out over three kilometres from the vent by such eruptions.
Potential for further eruptions
The hazards expected from steam-driven eruptions are violent ejections of hot blocks and ash, and the formation of “hurricane-like” currents of wet ash and coarse particles that radiate from the explosion vent. These can be deadly in terms of impact trauma, burns and respiratory injuries.
The eruptions are short-lived, but once one happens, there is a high chance for further, generally smaller ones as the system re-equilibrates. White Island is an acute location for such activity, but it is not the only location in New Zealand where this can happen.
Mount Ruapehu (crater lake), Mount Tongariro (Te Maari and Ketetahi) and geothermal areas of the central North Island all have the potential to cause such events. We know there have been more than 60 hydrothermal eruptions in the last 100 years in New Zealand. Some of these have caused loss of life.
Monitoring and warning for hydrothermal eruptions is a huge challenge. We don’t normally see these eruptions coming, no matter how much we would like to. Many systems are already “primed” for such events, but the triggers are poorly understood.
The warning periods, once an event gets underway, are likely in the order of seconds to minutes. Our only hope for anticipating these events is to track potential vapour and liquid pressure in hydrothermal systems and to learn from their long-term behaviour when they are at a super-critical state. Unfortunately there are no simple rules that can be followed and each hydrothermal system is different.
In this age of technology and instrumental monitoring, it seems irrational that there should be little or no warning for such eruptions. The eruption is not caused by magma, but by steam, and this is much harder to track in our current monitoring systems.
We have seen several other fatal hydrothermal catastrophies unfold in other parts of the world, such as the 2014 eruption of Mount Ontake in Japan. New Zealand has been luckier than many other parts of the world, until now.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has foreshadowed his government will have Australia play a more active role in seeking to set global standards.
Delivering the Lowy Lecture on Thursday night, Morrison said Australia “cannot afford to leave it to others to set the standards that will shape our global economy”.
He has asked the foreign affairs department for an audit of global institutions and rule-making processes where Australia had the greatest stake, and he plans to tap Australian expertise in expanding its role.
Morrison’s initiative, which follows his recent United States trip and his criticisms during it of China’s behaviour on trade, has particularly in mind the World Trade Organisation which is seen to need reform.
In comments that seemed to have an eye to Brexit and Donald Trump’s recent lauding of patriotism over globalism, Morrison made a sharp distinction between positive and negative globalism.
He said that “Australia does and must always seek to have a responsible and participative international agency in addressing global issues.” This he dubbed this “practical globalism”.
Australia was not served by isolationism and protectionism, he said. “But it also does not serve our national interests when international institutions demand conformity rather than independent cooperation on global issues.
“The world works best when the character and distinctiveness of independent nations is preserved within a framework of mutual respect. This includes respecting electoral mandates of their constituencies.
“We should avoid any reflex towards a negative globalism that coercively seeks to impose a mandate from an often ill defined borderless global community. And worse still, an unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy. Globalism must facilitate, align and engage, rather than direct and centralise. As such an approach can corrode support for joint international action.
“Only a national government, especially one accountable through the ballot box and the rule of law, can define its national interests,” he said. “And under my leadership Australia’s international engagement will be squarely driven by Australia’s national interests.
“To paraphrase former prime minister John Howard, as Australians, ‘we will decide our interests and the circumstances in which we seek to pursue them.’
“This will not only include our international efforts to support global peace and stability and to promote open markets based on fair and transparent rules, but also other global standards that underpin commerce, investment and exchange.”
The Prime Minister sought to put a positive spin on his labelling of China as a “newly developed” economy during his foreign policy speech in the US last week – a description which the Chinese contest.
“China has in many ways changed the world, so we would expect the terms of its engagement to change too. That’s why when we look at negotiating rules of the future of the global economy, for example, we would expect China’s obligations to reflect its greater power status.
“This is a compliment, not a criticism.
“And that is what I mean when describing China as a newly developed economy.
“The rules and institutions that support global cooperation must reflect the modern world. It can’t be set and forget,” he said.
Morrison told his audience that his passions had always been for domestic politics – he did not naturally seek out international platforms. But as prime minister he had to be directed by Australia’s national interest.
He said he would be visiting India in January and also Japan early next year. This follows a busy international schedule in 2019.
The UK Supreme Court’s finding that Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament (or prorogation) was unlawful has raised the question of whether similar judicial action could be taken to challenge a controversial prorogation in Australia.
There have been several occasions in the past when prorogation has been used in Australia to achieve political aims.
In light of the UK legal challenge to Johnson’s prorogation that impeded parliamentary action prior to the Brexit date of October 31, will similar court challenges to these types of suspensions be more likely in the future? And would Australian courts consider hearing such challenges?
What the UK Supreme Court ruled
The UK case potentially has relevance for Australia because it neatly side-stepped the more contentious question of whether the prime minister’s advice to the Queen could be the subject of judicial review on the ground it was given for an improper purpose.
Instead, the Supreme Court focused on its judicial power to determine the existence and extent of the executive’s “prerogative” powers.
These are the traditional powers of the monarch that have been passed down over centuries rather than being conferred by law. Australian and UK courts have long recognised that it is up to the courts, through applying the common law, to determine the scope of these powers.
In doing so, the UK court looked to fundamental constitutional principles, such as parliamentary sovereignty and responsible government, as imposing limits on the executive’s power to prorogue.
It recognised that parliamentary sovereignty would be undermined if the executive could prevent parliament from exercising its legislative authority for as long as it pleased.
It also expressed concern that responsible government would be undermined and replaced by “unaccountable government” if parliament were prevented by the executive from scrutinising its actions.
The Supreme Court held that advice to the Queen to prorogue parliament, and any decision based upon that advice, will be
unlawful if the prorogation has the effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature and as the body responsible for the supervision of the executive.
Whether or not the prorogation has this effect is a question of fact which falls well within the jurisdiction of the courts to determine.
‘Reasonable justification’ to suspend parliament
More controversial is the assessment of what is a “reasonable justification” to suspend parliament.
The Supreme Court pointed out that a short period of prorogation for the purpose of ending a session of parliament and starting a new one would not require further justification.
The court would only need to consider additional justification in “unusual circumstances”. In doing so, it would need to be sensitive to the responsibilities and experience of the prime minister.
In this particular case of the prorogation of the UK parliament for five weeks, the court deemed the circumstances to be not only “unusual”, but “exceptional”.
This was because a “fundamental change” in the Constitution of the United Kingdom is to occur on October 31 when the country is due to leave the European Union. In addition, the House of Commons had already demonstrated that it does not support the government on Brexit, and the prorogation would prevent parliament from carrying out its constitutional role for a significant period before that date.
The Supreme Court was also not offered a reasonable justification by the UK government for the length of the prorogation. It was merely told that a new session of parliament was desired so the government’s agenda could be set out in the Queen’s Speech.
Moreover, there was no consideration by the government of how much time was needed to scrutinise and enact legislation prior to the October 31 deadline, or the competing merits of adjourning or proroguing parliament.
The court pointed to the prime minister’s constitutional responsibility to take into account all relevant interests, including those of parliament, when advising the Queen. In an unusually pointed observation, it noted there was “no hint” of Johnson exercising that responsibility.
Based on this evidence, the court ruled it was impossible to conclude there was “any reason, let alone a good reason” to prorogue parliament for five weeks.
This meant that not only was the advice to prorogue parliament unlawful, but also that parliament would be able to continue in session.
Will the UK ruling set a precedent in Australia?
Would the same kind of challenge occur if a government prorogued parliament in Australia?
Proroguing parliament for a short time to ensure it sits to exercise its functions, as was done by the Turnbull Government in 2016, would clearly be acceptable.
Proroguing parliament for a long period would be much more vulnerable to challenge if it prevented parliamentary inquiries from continuing, for example, or delayed the tabling of embarrassing documents.
The government would have to be prepared to provide evidence to the courts showing “reasonable justification” for the period of prorogation, if it were challenged.
Would Australian courts be prepared to follow the UK Supreme Court precedent?
They would certainly give serious consideration to it, as this is the only precedent on the prorogation of parliament in a Westminster-style system of government, and the unanimous judgement of a significant court.
Moreover, the UK court’s reasoning is very similar to existing Australian cases in which courts have ruled that the common law must be interpreted in a manner that is consistent with constitutional principles.
This means that Australian governments should, in the future, be quite careful when proroguing parliament. They will need to ensure they do not do so for unnecessarily long periods of time and to prevent parliament from fulfilling its legislative and scrutiny functions, especially during periods of political controversy.
If their action is challenged in the courts, they will also need to be prepared to provide evidence of a reasonable justification for doing so.
When lives are tragically cut short, it is generally easier to explain the “how” than the “why”. This dark reality is all the more felt when tragedy comes at the hands of murderous intent. Explaining how 50 people came to be killed, and almost as many badly injured, in Christchurch’s double massacre of Muslims at prayer is heartbreaking but relatively straightforward.
It is a credit to the peaceful nature of New Zealand society that, despite the open availability of weapons like the AR15, the last time there was a mass shooting was in 1997. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern rightly identified reform of gun laws as one of the immediate outcomes required in response to this tragedy.
But lax gun laws are arguably the only area in which blame can be laid in New Zealand. Ardern, together with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, was also right to refer to this barbaric act of cold-blooded murder of people in prayer as right wing extremist terrorism driven by Islamophobic hatred.
State and federal police in Australia have long warned that, next to the immediate threat posed by Salafi jihadi terrorism, they are most concerned about the steady rise of right-wing extremism. There has been some comfort in the recognition that the most active right wing extremist groups, and there are many, are disorganised, poorly led, and attract but small crowds.
On the face of it, then, right wing extremism in Australia is nowhere near as serious as the neo-Nazi movements of Europe or the various permutations of white supremacy and toxic nationalism that bedevil American politics. In America, it is conservatively estimated that there were 50 deaths due to terrorist attacks in 2018, almost all linked to right-wing extremism.
In 2017, it is calculated that there were 950 attacks on Muslims and mosques in Germany alone. Many of last year’s attacks in America involved a common right wing extremist hatred of Islam, and a targeting of Muslims, joining a long-standing enmity towards Jews.
Almost all recent terrorist attacks have been lone-actor attacks. They are notoriously difficult to predict. Whether inspired by Salafi jihadi Islamist extremism or right wing extremism, lone-actor attacks commonly feature individuals fixated on the deluded dream of going from “zero to hero”.
One of the main reasons authorities struggle with identifying right wing extremist “nobodies” who post online, before they turn to violence, is that it’s difficult to pick up a clear signal in the noise of a national discourse increasingly dominated by exactly the same narrative elements of mistrust, anxiety, and a blaming of the other.
In Australia, as in Europe and America, mainstream politicians and mainstream media commentators have increasingly toyed with extremist ideas in the pursuit of popularity. Many have openly brandished outrageous ideas that in previous years would have been unsayable in mainstream political discourse or commentary.
Donald Trump can be deservedly singled out for making the unspeakable the new normal in mainstream right wing politics, but he is hardly alone in this. And sadly, for all of the relative civility and stability of Australian politics, we too have now come to normalise the toxic politics of fear.
No-one put it better than The Project host Waleed Aly in saying that Friday’s terrorist attacks, although profoundly disturbing, did not come as a shocking surprise. Anyone who has been paying attention and who really cares about the well-being and security of Australian society has observed the steady growth of right wing extremist and right supremacist ideas in general, and Islamophobia particular.
They have seen the numerous attacks on Muslims and Jews at prayer and worried about the day when the murderous violence that has plagued the northern hemisphere will visit the southern hemisphere. But more than that, they have worried about the singling-out of migrants, and in particular asylum seekers, African youth and Muslims as pawns to be played with in the cynical politics of fear.
Scott Morrison is right to say these problems have been with us for many years. But he would do better to point out that our downward trajectory sharply accelerated after John Howard’s “dark victory” of 2001. The unwinnable election was won on the back of the arrival of asylum seekers on the MV Tampa in August followed by the September 11 attacks, and at the price of John Howard and the Liberal party embracing the white supremacist extremist politics of Pauline Hanson.
Both major parties, it must be said, succumbed to the lure of giving focus groups and pollsters the tough language and inhumane policies the public appeared to demand and reward. We are now beginning to see the true price that we have paid with the demonising of those arriving by boat seeking asylum, or looking too dark-skinned, or appearing too religious.
The result has been such a cacophony of hateful rhetoric that it has been hard for those tasked with spotting the emergence of violent extremism to separate it from all the background noise of extremism.
There are, of course lessons to be learned. Authorities need to do better. We can begin with a national database of hate crimes, with standard definitions and robust data collection. Clearly, we need to pay attention to hateful extremism if we are to prevent violent extremism.
But ultimately, we need to address the permissive political environment that allows such hateful extremism to be promulgated so openly. The onus is on commentators and political leaders alike. They cannot change the past, but they will determine the future.
But the size and location of the earthquake should not have come as a surprise. Palu is situated at the end of a long, narrow bay which is the surface expression of a very active fault, the Palu-Koro fault.
The area is at high risk of tsunami, with several large earthquakes and tsunamis occurring along the fault within the past 100 years.
It was developed after the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that occurred after an earthquake near Sumatra, but in this recent event the warning did not reach many of the people who were affected.
The tsunami occurred in an area where there are no tide gauges that could give information about the height of the wave. There are reports that a more high-tech system could have saved lives if it had been fully implemented.
The Indonesian Tsunami Warning System issued a warning only minutes after the earthquake, but officials were unable to contact officers in the Palu area. The warning was cancelled 34 minutes later, just after the third tsunami wave hit Palu.
Several these large earthquakes have also generated tsunamis. In 1927, an earthquake and tsunami caused about 50 deaths and damaged buildings in Palu. In 1968 an earthquake with magnitude 7.8 near Donggala generated a tsunami wave that killed more than 200 people.
Despite this history, many people in Palu were not aware of the risk of a tsunami following the earthquake. Ten years on from the 2004 Boxing Day tragedy that killed at least 226,000 people, there were concerns about tsunami warning systems across the region.
An advanced warning system currently only in the prototype stage may not have helped the people of Palu, as the tsunami struck the shore within 20 minutes of the earthquake.
Such early warning systems are most useful for areas several hundred kilometres from the tsunami source. In regions like Palu where the earthquake and tsunami source are very close, education is the most effective warning system.
It is not yet clear whether Friday’s tsunami was caused by movement on the fault rupture from the earthquake, or from submarine landslides within Palu bay caused by the shaking from the earthquake.
The sides of the bay are steep and unstable, and maps of the sea floor suggest that submarine landslides have occurred there in the past.
If the tsunami was generated by a submarine landslide within the bay, tsunami sensors or tide gauges at the mouth of the bay would not have sensed the tsunami wave before it struck the shore in Palu.
High tech tsunami warning systems are able to send out warnings through phone networks and other communications channels, and reach the community through text messages and tsunami sirens on the beaches.
But in areas where a devastating earthquake has occurred, this infrastructure is often too damaged to operate and the warning messages simply can’t get through. In Palu, the earthquake destroyed the local mobile phone network and no information was able to get in or out of the area.
Timing is also crucial. Official tsunami warnings require analysis of data and take time – even if it is only minutes – to prepare and disseminate.
This time is crucial for people near the earthquake epicentre, where the tsunami may strike within minutes of the earthquake. Those living in such areas need to be aware of the need to evacuate without waiting for official warnings, relying on the earthquake itself as a natural warning of a potential tsunami.
The need to raise awareness of the risk becomes even more challenging when large tsunamis occur infrequently, as in Palu. Many residents would not have been born when the last tsunami impacted the town in 1968.
So high tech warning systems may not be effective in areas close to the earthquake epicentre. Ongoing awareness and education programmes are the most important part of a tsunami warning system in coastal areas at risk of tsunami, no matter how infrequently they occur.
Former attorney-general George Brandis has warned of the challenge that right-wing populism poses to the Liberal Party, in his valedictory speech to the Senate ahead of taking up the post of high commissioner in London.
Brandis, a Liberal moderate, also strongly cautioned the Coalition against listening to those who said it should use national security as a political weapon against Labor, and criticised attacks on the judiciary from his own side.
With Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull looking on, Brandis told the Senate that classical liberal values were under “greater challenge than at any time in my memory”.
“Increasingly, in recent years, powerful elements of right-wing politics have abandoned both liberalism’s concern for the rights of the individual and conservatism’s respect for institutions, in favour of a belligerent, intolerant populism which shows no respect for either the rights of individual citizens or the traditional institutions which protect them.”
Brandis was attorney-general throughout the Abbott and Turnbull governments, leaving the ministry in the December reshuffle.
He became increasingly outspoken as a voice of the moderate strand of the Liberal Party toward the end of his time in parliament. Within the government, he was critical of the hardline conservative Peter Dutton, now the home affairs minister.
In his speech Brandis targeted “right-wing postmodernism”. “A set of attitudes which had its origin in the authoritarian mind of the left has been translated right across the political spectrum,” he said.
“This presents a threat both to liberalism and conservatism, and a profound challenge to the Liberal Party as the custodian of these philosophic traditions.”
Brandis – who once set off a political storm by declaring that people had the right to be bigots – said being a liberal wasn’t easy.
“It means respecting the right of people to make choices which we ourselves would not make and of which may disapprove.
“It means respecting the right of people to express their opinions, even though others may find those opinions offensive.
“It means respecting the right of people to practice their religion, even though others may find the tenets of that religion irrational.
“It means, in a nation of many cultures, respecting the right of people to live according to their culture, even though, to others, that culture may seem alien.
“It means respecting the right of everyone to marry the person they love, even though others may find their understanding of marriage confronting.”
Brandis was a prominent figure pushing for same-sex marriage, which was legislated late last year.
In a pointed reference including some (unnamed) ministers who have criticised the judiciary, Brandis said he had not disguised his concerns at attacks on the institutions of the law – the courts and those who practised in them.
“To attack those institutions is to attack the rule of law itself. And it is for the attorney-general always to defend the rule of law – sometimes from political colleagues who fail to understand it, or are impatient of the limitations it may impose upon executive power – because although the attorney-general is a political official, as the first law officer he has a higher duty – a duty to the law itself.
“It is a duty which, as my cabinet colleagues know, on several robust occasions, I have always placed above political advantage.”
Brandis also was blunt in his rejection of those who want to see the government seek to inject more partisanship into national security.
He observed that eight tranches of national security legislation he had overseen were passed with opposition support after parliamentary committee scrutiny.
“It was a fine example of government and parliament working hand-in-hand to protect the national interest.
“I have heard some powerful voices argue that the Coalition should open a political front against the Labor Party on the issue of domestic national security.
“I could not disagree more strongly.
“One of the main reasons why the government has earned the confidence of the public on national security policy is that there has never been a credible suggestion that political motives have intruded.
“Were it to do so, confidence not just in the government’s handling of national security, but in the agencies themselves, would be damaged and their capacity to do their work compromised.
“Nothing could be more irresponsible than to hazard the safety of the public by creating a confected dispute for political advantage. To his credit, the prime minister has always resisted such entreaties.”