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Antarctic director on a career as a public conservationist

Biologist, conservationist and photographer are words that will always describe Tony Fleming, but from August 6, director of the Australian Antarctic Division will be crossed off the list.

He says leaving the unique and coveted position will be a “very exciting step into the unknown” because apart from taking a break for several well-earned months and spending more time photographing the natural world and its inhabitants, he isn’t really sure what comes next.

Fleming took the reins of the unique agency in 2011, as the centenary of Sir Douglas Mawson’s expedition to the world’s largest desert was being celebrated, and led a special commemorative voyage to Mawson’s hut (pictured above) the following year. The job was the culmination of a career devoted to conservation, but also a way to connect with his forebears.

His childhood was filled with stories of the fascinating frozen continent and its heroic early explorers, passed down from his mother although she never set foot in Antarctica. His grandfather was part of expeditions led by Sir Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott, and was joined by two of Fleming’s great-uncles on the latter journey.

“I got into the public service because I was concerned about conservation issues, and into three ministers’ offices because it was the heart of conservation power.”

While in the role, he was the Australian representative on the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources and was instrumental in developing a proposal for Marine Protected Areas in the waters around East Antarctica.

His successor was last week revealed as chief scientist Nick Gales. Fleming will have left him with the division’s biggest ever purchase — a powerful new icebreaking ship — and Environment Minister Greg Hunt will hand them a detailed plan to build on Australia’s Antarctic legacy for the next 20 years, based on the recommendations of another former AAD boss, Tony Press.

The way to do that can be reduced to simple equation, in Fleming’s view: “That plan should focus on the Antarctic science that we do, and the logistics required to do that.”

Tony Fleming

When he got the job, Fleming was national operations manager for the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which protects endangered species across millions of hectares of privately owned land in far-flung places. “They called me on a sat-phone offering the [AAD] job when I was in the Simpson desert, so I went from a hot desert to a cold desert,” he remarked to The Mandarin.

The impulse to be immersed in wild places, to understand the natural environment and to protect it has always driven him, from undergraduate days studying plants and contributing to the environmentalist movement, to a public sector career spanning both the political and bureaucratic sides of government. He even ran for election once, hoping to become a member of the ACT’s first self-governing legislative assembly, but quickly decided he preferred behind-the-scenes roles. This included working in the offices of four federal environment ministers: Graham Richardson, Ros Kelly and John Faulkner, and later Robert Hill, with a departmental role in between.

“My career has focused on conservation — land management jobs in the NSW public service, and policy jobs in the Commonwealth — and I led the team to review all of the Commonwealth’s environment legislation in the 1990s,” said Fleming. “I also led the team to create the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.”

He’s worked in the not-for-profit space and on independent campaigns, but saw that a public sector career would also allow him to have powerful influence over Australia’s relationship with the environment, in a different way.

“The public sector manages most of the conservation reserves in Australia and the Commonwealth creates policy for all of Australia. So I got into the public service because I was concerned about conservation issues, and I got into three ministers’ offices because it was the heart of conservation power.”

Fleming moved to the New South Wales public service as manager of the southern region with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, and in 2003 became the organisation’s director.

“In terms of my career in the NSW public service, the proudest achievement for me was [contributing to] expanding the New South Wales National Parks estate,” he said, paying tribute to then-premier Bob Carr as “a passionate conservationist” with “a really good Environment Minister” in Bob Debus.

“So little by little, they reformed the land use in NSW. Using regional forest agreements and other techniques [they were] settling down the land use conflict in the forests. They provided maybe two million hectares of forests in the National Park estate.”

A varied and rewarding duty

As AAD director, Fleming oversaw two dramatic rescue operations — one after a helicopter crash and the other when a Russian vessel became trapped in thick ice — but says it is the fruits of the science program of which he is proudest.

“We’ve got a remarkable team and we’ve got the highest retention rate, I think, in the public service.”

“The AAD has a got a world-class science program,” he said. “We’ve got glaciologists and marine scientists, and we had a deep-field camp a couple of years ago — Aurora Bason North — where we drilled three hundred metres of ice core.

“That revealed 2000 years of past climate, year by year, and we’re analysing those samples now. And a couple of years ago, we had a great marine science voyage that provided evidence of ocean warming and ocean acidification.”

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One thing he comes back to about the AAD is the passion of its staff and the strong culture that has been built by the organisation over 55 years, and through more than one revision of its place in the machinery of government.

“We’ve got a remarkable team and we’ve got the highest retention rate, I think, in the public service,” said Fleming.

“These are passionate, skilled people who are focused on the Antarctic. We have scientists and science technical people, logisticians and warehouse people, carpenters, plumbers, builders and electricians. The division supports four villages, three in the Antarctic and one on Macquarie Island, and we have to provide all of the support for those.

“It’s a continent devoted to peace and science, and there are many passionate and very skilled people also in other nations’ Antarctic programs we work with.”

Collaboration between the 52 other nations involved in the region is a huge part of Antarctic life, the focus on peace and science underpinned by the uniquely friendly terms of the 55-year-old Antarctic Treaty. Fleming hopes cooler heads continue to prevail down south so this “simple and elegant instrument” only ever becomes stronger.

As a public service leader, he took the approach of getting to know his staff on a personal level, learning about their work inside-out, and being upfront with them when delivering unwelcome news, such as the recent tightening of budgets.

“As the rest of the public service has, we had budget cuts, and I just laid out everything for the staff. We had staff meetings, but before that, I’d got to know many of the staff in informal settings, and I’d got to know the Antarctic program. I went south maybe seven times, and I understood the program intimately, so that stood me in good stead with the staff, and I think that’s about it.”

All images supplied by the Australian Antarctic Division.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.