More Australian Weather Records Tumble

The Big Dry Down Under just got a whole lot drier. The first three months of 2009 in the already parched Murray Darling basin had the least amount of rainfall since Australian weather records began 117 years ago.

This massive drainage supports $9 billion in agriculture but has been hammered by what some are calling the worst drought in 1000 years. Authorities in Australia make no bones about the cause of this freaky weather.

"We've had big droughts before and big floods before, but what we didn't have was climate change," said Rob Freeman, the chief executive of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

The Murray Darling is home to 2 million people who may not even have enough water to survive in the future. "I'd be loath to say that critical human needs will always be secure", warned Freeman.

The recent rainfall record was not the only smashed. Water inputs for three-year period ending March 2009 were less than half of the previous record from the great drought of 1943-1946.

The drainage is so dry that Lake Alexandrina at the mouth of the Murray River is now two feet below sea level. The parched lakebed high in natural sulfides is now exposed to air and oxidizing into sulfuric acid – devastating local ecosystems.

While droughts are normal in Australia, there has never been one as hot as this.

The killer heat wave in January claimed more than 370 lives – more than double the number lost during the worst wildfires in Australian history this February.

Unprecedented temperatures peaked over 45 degrees in Melbourne and averaged 12 to 15 degrees above normal throughout the State of Victoria.

While so-called climate skeptics maintain that climate change is a hoax or a big mistake, Australian firefighters who faced the grim task of battling the worst bush blazes ever came away with a different conclusion.

In an open letter the Australian Prime Minister, the firefighters union called for urgent government action to curb carbon emissions and control climate change:

"Firefighters work in conditions that most of the public try to flee. We often put our lives on the line. We understand that our job is dangerous by its very nature. However, we are gravely concerned that current federal and state government policies seem destined to ensure a repeat of the recent tragic events… Given the Federal Government’s dismal greenhouse gas emissions cut of 5 per cent, the science suggests we are well on the way to guaranteeing that somewhere in the country there will be an almost annual repeat of the recent disaster and more frequent extreme weather events."

Hard to argue with experience like that.

As the Big Dry becomes even drier, there is yet another opportunity to see climate change in action by simply looking out the window. Australia is rapidly becoming a time machine to visit what our warmer world will look like.


STV is a Bad Fit for Canada

As a long-time advocate of electoral reform, with a heavy heart that I must advise my fellow British Columbians to vote against BC-STV on the May 12th.

BC-STV or “single transferable vote” is a bad fit for Canada, and if adopted here could become a mistake repeated in other provinces with potentially disastrous consequences.

The reason is that STV has an extremely poor record of representing the diversity that Canada is so renowned for, and may in fact lead to even less women being elected than our disgraced “first past the post” system that routinely returns only one in five elected female representatives.

If you watch this video of the Ontario Citizens Assembly process, you will see something that the BC citizens assembly never did. Professor David Farrell of the University of Dublin and authour of the textbook for both the BC and Ontario citizens assembly processes was asked specifically about STV and women during the deliberations in Ontario.

Professor Farrell states clearly that: “there is still this forlorn hope among STV proponents that you are going to find [more women elected under STV someday but unfortunately Ireland and Malta as the only two countries that use single transferable vote are historically right at the bottom of the heap in terms of the representation of women, so it is just not working.

So why would the BC citizens assembly recommend a system that is even worse in terms of representing gender equity (and ethnic diversity) than our current system? Perhaps because they were never directly presented with this important information. Incredibly, gender equity was never part of the mandate of the citizen’s assembly.

This country exemplifies and celebrates diversity more than any other nation on Earth. There may be places that STV would be a better fit, but that place is not Canada.

Malta under STV elects less than 10% women, far worse than even our notoriously gender biased first past the post system. If we are going to bring in the first major electoral reform in North America, why would we want to start with a system that in many ways important to the Canadian character could be even worse than what we want to replace?

Many of these failings of STV flow from the notoriously adversarial system it uses to elect local representatives. In a single riding, literally dozens of candidates must compete for your attention, often of course by slagging their opponents.

People from the even the same political party are in direct competition against each other on a ballot that can be the size of a table cloth. Personalities like Don Cherry prevail. Those like Lester Pearson do not. It is little wonder such a gong show model attracts or elects such a paltry number of female candidates.

Likewise according to Professor Farrell, STV has a poor record of representing minority groups – another core Canadian value – in comparison to list systems like “mixed member proportional representation” (MMP).

So how did we end up in this mess? It is worth reflecting on flawed decision process imposed on the BC Citizen's Assembly in the final days of their determination. After months of mind-numbing expert presentations to lay members, the final crucial decisions were crammed into only two weekend sessions.

The enormous investment of time and effort meant there was little doubt the assembly was going to rightly recommend change. There was also a strong feeling among assembly members that they wanted to present a unanimous recommendation for an alternative model – either STV or the much more established model of MMP that has a comparatively stellar record of representing women and diversity.

In these final days, exhausted members were apparently faced with a small number of representatives (strangely from northern BC that will be very poorly served by STV) who made it clear they would block consensus if the recommendation was the MMP.

The rest is unfortunately history. In spite of the fact that fully 80% of public submissions instead supported some form of MMP, four years and two referenda later we are still stuck with a single choice: STV or nothing.

The good news is that there substantial and growing appetite for electoral reform in BC. The STV referendum in 2005 received 57% support. This was in spite of the fact that 64% of British Columbians knew “nothing” or “very little” about STV according to a Ipsos-Reid poll at the time. A second poll by Nordic Research Group poll on the eve of that referendum showed that only 37% of respondents could even name STV.

This was not for lack of trying. The BC government had mailed a 20-page explanation of STV to all 1.5 million households in the province, followed by a second mailing from the BC Referendum office.

British Columbians were voting for change. They were not voting for STV.

However, the many good people now working hard to promote STV maintain that this may be our last chance for electoral reform in BC. This is simply not true.

Five years ago it was a difficult to find more than a handful of people actively engaged on reforming our electoral system. We have since come a very long way in raising public awareness. Electoral reform is now inevitable in Canada, whether our politicians want it or not.

There is also an bizarre sentiment that STV is somehow a road to MMP. This is nonsense. If you find yourself standing at the front of a church about to be married to someone other than your true love, the time to call of the wedding is now - not after you have bought a house and had three children.

Once we change our electoral system, we will be committed to several election cycles before it can again be changed again. Untangling the mistakes flowing from the final days of citizen’s assembly process 20 years from now will be exponentially more difficult.

We soon will have had two referenda on STV. If this second one again fails, proponents of STV must admit this model is truly a loser and throw their admirable determination behind the alternative MMP model, also developed by the citizen’s assembly.

Incredibly, in spite of two referenda and hundreds of public submissions in support of it, this model has never been presented as a choice to the people of British Columbia.

Change must come to our electoral system. But not change that may make gender and minority representation in Canadian politics even worse.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. His late mother Doris Anderson, the former President of Fair Vote Canada, a strongly opposed STV.