Antarctic strategy positive but CSIRO cuts leave cracks in ice research

By Stephen Easton

May 26, 2016

Antarctica expert Tony Press is rather impressed with the response to the 20-year strategic plan he produced in 2014 for the Department of the Environment, all things considered.

Some foreign policy pundits say the concise two-part document isn’t enough to demonstrate a firm renewal of our commitment to the co-operative international order that prevails on the frozen continent, in the eyes of other governments. But according to Press, one of the nation’s most knowledgeable sources on polar matters, the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan ticks all the right boxes.

“Quite honestly I was very pleased with the government’s response to what I wrote two years ago,” Press (pictured) told The Mandarin. “I think it’s quite a comprehensive response, actually.”

“Often governments receive reports and they go and compost somewhere in the shelves of government departments, but you can see in this report a genuine acknowledgement of the strategic importance of Antarctica and a genuine look at how we should place ourselves in the future.”

Along with the central commitment to build and operate a new icebreaking ship, Press says it’s “really, really positive” to see an increase in base funding for Environment’s Australian Antarctic Division, which he led for 10 years, as well as investment in deep-field traverse capability and acknowledgement that further investment in “year-round aviation infrastructure” is required.

“The way that the ‘whole of life’ of that ship is to be funded is a really significant step, and a very good way forward for that kind of major infrastructure investment in a national asset — which the new ship is and will continue to be,” said Press, an adjunct professor with the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre in Tasmania and its former chief executive.

The 20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan he prepared almost two years ago was a far longer and more detailed report than the response, which in many cases simply flags key decisions and commitments that will need to be made further down the track. Press says he’s not too concerned by that. “The fact that they’ve been explicitly identified is, in itself, really positive,” he said.

The new official plan was also welcomed by Anthony Bergin, an Antarctica watcher and deputy director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who described it as “a strong framework to strengthen our polar efforts and sets out clear priorities to guide the allocation of scarce resources” in a recent comment piece.

Bergin was particularly chuffed to see an explicit statement of Australia’s Antarctic interests, a point that Press considered particularly important when he wrote the comprehensive precursor to the new strategy document.

“The fact that those interests are spelled out, and they’ve included ‘the support for a strong and effective Antarctic treaty system’ — that’s really important, not just for Australia but it’s important for all of our international colleagues to understand and see the context, and to understand that we are a great supporter of that treaty system and all it stands for,” the professor said.

“I think that’s just as significant as the investment of cash and capital.”

On the other hand, Bergin also thinks the report is light on the role our diplomats need to play in maintaining our historical position of influence over the polar region and its special status as a place for the peaceful pursuit of scientific endeavour. He argues the Defence Force should have a larger role in the polar zone, with new aircraft — both manned and unmanned — as well as ice-strengthened patrol boats to extend its search-and-rescue, maritime surveillance and response capabilities further south:

“Such military support wouldn’t violate the “peaceful purposes” provision in the Antarctic treaty and would allow us to project our southern national interests through the ADF.”

Press says Bergin is right in that diplomacy plays a key role in Antarctic policy, but doesn’t see its absence from the Strategy and Action Plan as a failing. He accepts that in government, “you can only say so much when you respond to these things; you can’t actually say everything”.

“This document that’s been released has gone through a very thorough whole-of-government process,” said Press. “This isn’t something that was just written overnight by a couple of Department of Environment bureaucrats.”

Over at the Lowy Interpreter, former CSIRO scientist Neil Hamilton makes similar arguments but goes a lot further, suggesting “Australia’s Antarctic policy framework is rapidly becoming a victim of shortsighted cost cutting and politically-motivated bureaucratic malaise” in light of budget cuts that will see the national research body cease its ice-core research.

The Stategy and Action Plan make much of the international search for a “million-year ice core” that will be supported by an improved deep-field traverse capability and provide vital information to climate change researchers. Top of the list of goals to have completed in the second year of the plan to “build Australia’s science leadership in Antarctica” is:

“building an overland traverse capability, with associated ice core drilling and mobile station infrastructure and research support, to enable planning with international partners to retrieve a million-year ice core.”

But if the Commonwealth’s top research body won’t be joining the international team of climate scientists who actually study the million-year-old ice, after the AAD helps drill it out of the ground, it’s fair to say the signals are mixed.

Hamilton suggests the CSIRO funding decline “sends a direct signal to those nations who are more interested in exploitation [that] Australian interests in Antarctica are waning” and worries about this “creating an international relations mess with profound implications”. He doesn’t think the government did justice to Press’ recommendations in its response:

“The Strategy lamentably lacks the vision and depth of the Press Report while providing a simple definition of national priorities. The Action Plan presents a reasonable array of new (and necessary) toys, but clearly fails to deliver the outcomes defined in the Strategy. There simply isn’t enough money or thought given to the international implications of these decisions.

“The net effect of federal policy on Antarctica since 2012 has been to slice the budget by more than 30%, and dramatically reduce the capacity of Australian scientists to continue long term monitoring programs and carry out new and important research.”

Press, however, isn’t too worried about the treaty system falling apart anytime soon; these plans are framed in terms of decades for good reason. There is no pressing crisis right now, but rather a sense that Australia needs to recommit to a leading role in Antarctica over the next few years or risk sliding into irrelevance.

“That doesn’t mean that we should be complacent and it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t confront bad behaviour if ever it raises its head,” he explained. “But the Antarctic Treaty System has survived the Cold War, it’s survived a number of major perturbations over the last five decades, and it’s remained strong and coherent,”

“I think it will remain strong and coherent into the future, particularly if countries like Australia see that keeping it strong and capable is in their interests. That doesn’t mean there wont be difficult issues to resolve but I certainly don’t see the breakdown of the Antarctic Treaty system happening in the next few decades at least, and I certainly don’t see an all-out resources war breaking out in Antarctica.

“I think both practically and politically, that’s not on the horizon.”

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