The ambitious Antarctic plan to position Australia as a key player

By Stephen Easton

October 16, 2014

Old Antarctica hand Dr Tony Press has delivered a clear and detailed strategy to steward Australia’s considerable interests on the icy continent for the next 20 years. And from the initial signs ahead of an official government response, he’s confident it is being taken seriously.

With sovereignty over the largest slice of the big frozen pie, Australia has no time to waste in reaffirming and demonstrating its position as a key player in Antarctic affairs, according to Press. That position, he says, has been eroded by under-investment and is in risk of decline, despite our proximity, history and experience in the polar region.

As such, his report provides a set of clear steps for legislators and public servants now and into the future, as well as more symbolic suggestions, such as more official visits and the creation of two new flags to represent the Australian Antarctic Territory, and the Territory of Heard Island and MacDonald Islands.

The strategy calls for the Attorney-General’s Department and the Australian Antarctic Division within the Department of the Environment to jointly review the administration of the AAT and the relevant legislation. “Now’s a good time to go and have a look at our legislation to see how well it applies in the 21st Century,” Press told The Mandarin.

He also recommends Environment and the Department of Finance take a detailed look at the AAD’s budget from top to bottom. The extensive wish list includes modernised stations, increased scientific capabilities, more engagement with other nations, major AAD research campaigns lasting several years and the ability to extend its reach into the furthest parts of Australia’s territory. According to the report, it would be worthwhile seeking additional funding from “business and philanthropic sources”.

A major funding boost to Antarctic science grants for university researchers is also suggested, but not at the expense of other core functions of the Australian Antarctic Program.

“I’m trying to stop things falling between the cracks of inter-departmental committees and the like.”

A request for tender process is already in motion to buy an icebreaker to replace the ageing Aurora Australis, which is owned by cruise operator P&O. “Our strategic interests and the importance of our work in the Antarctic require us to be able to deploy a vessel with the minimum of strictures on how that vessel’s deployed,” Press explained. “We shouldn’t, for instance, be hamstrung by contractual arrangements that might require the vessel to be elsewhere than Australia for a period of time.”

In the first of 35 recommendations, Press calls on the government to reaffirm Australia’s six official strategic interests in Antarctica, and adds one: “support a strong and effective Antarctic Treaty System”. He suggests the responsibilities of key agencies involved in pursuing the seven strategic interests, and reporting against them, be explicitly stated.

“Depending on how the government responds to [the report], it clearly gives the agencies not only a mandate, but also a responsibility that’s explicit,” Press said. “I’m trying to stop things falling between the cracks of inter-departmental committees and the like.”

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The role of Australia’s Antarctic Division

The 20-year strategy would make the AAD the official lead agency for pursuing unique scientific research opportunities, environmental protection and staying “informed about and therefore in a position to influence developments” in the region, due to its proximity to the mainland.

AAD would also lead efforts to “foster reasonable economic benefits from living and non-living resources of the Antarctic”, excluding oil and gas. The word “foster” is recommended to replace “derive any” to “better reflect Australia’s position”.

AAD is recognised as having significant responsibilities for the three remaining strategic interests as well, and much of the report is aimed at the agency. The plan calls for more collaboration between its chief scientist and the Australian Research Council, the Integrated Marine Observing System and the Marine National Facility Steering Committee. Press also calls on AAD to prepare a “carefully considered budget” for priority research at Heard Island and MacDonald Islands, and surrounding waters. This, he argues, should be considered part of its core responsibilities from now on “as the region is strategically important for Australia, has important fisheries resources, and is important for wildlife conservation”.

There are significant responsibilities to be assigned explicitly to the departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Industry, Education, Defence and Agriculture, as well as the Bureau of Meteorology.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is unsurprisingly named as the lead when it comes to pursuing Australia’s interests in polar peace and the strength of the treaty that maintains it. DFAT would also have significant responsibilities for efforts to maintain sovereignty over the Australian Antarctic Territory, with the Attorney-General’s Department playing the lead role. Recommendations 9-13 all apply to the diplomats:

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Press argues the AAD director — a position he once occupied — should become an ex officio territorial administrator. Anthony Bergin of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute warns this could create a conflict of interest because “the director could propose programs that the administrator would then be called upon to sign off on”. But according to Press: “This is just formalising that relationship between the government and its external territory; it’s not a move to establish a whole new bureaucracy.”

Recommendations 23-27 list a plethora of measures under “economic benefits for Tasmania as an Antarctic gateway”, which should boost jobs, skills and infrastructure for the Apple Isle at the same time as supporting a renewed commitment to icy science.

The government has already allocated $87 million to the frozen territory. This includes $38 million to extend the Hobart Airport runway, $24 million over three years for a partnership between the AAD, CSIRO and University of Tasmania, and $25 million over five years for the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre, where Press is an adjunct professor. He hopes the government will issue a full response “expeditiously”.

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