Australia’s Antarctic interests: Tony Press writes on the report from the Lowy Institute

The release this week of the Lowy Institute report “Antarctica: Assessing and Protecting Australia’s National Interests” is timely and likely to stimulate much discussion about Australia’s future presence in Antarctica. In many ways the Lowy report traverses the ground covered by a 2007 Australian Strategic Policy Institute report “Frozen assets: Securing Australia's Antarctic future”. It is worth noting that many of the issues raised in each report are very similar. But the call by the Lowy Institute for increased investment in science, logistics and renewed infrastructure is more urgent now than four years ago, as the need to support high priority science increases and our only icebreaker Aurora Australis ages. Australia has done much in recent years to focus efforts on high priority science in Antarctica, but our program is modest and limited by the capability of our logistics and infrastructure – both issues highlighted in the Lowy report. While there is much to support in the Lowy report, there are some fundamental issues with which I disagree. The first issue might seem rather arcane to an outside observer, and that is the status of Australia’s claim the Australian Antarctic Territory. The Lowy report variously characterises Australia’s claim as either ‘suspended’ or ‘dormant’ by virtue of the Antarctic Treaty. A more correct interpretation of the relevant provision of the Antarctic Treaty is that Australia’s claim is protected by the Treaty. While a great many countries do not recognise Australia’s claim to the Australian Antarctic Territory, our claim has never been disputed by another nation state, and Antarctic Treaty parties are bound by the provisions of Article IV of the Treaty. The second issue is the characterisation of the ban on mining in Antarctica. The Madrid Protocol bans mining indefinitely, but has a provision for review of the protocol, if requested, after 50 years (in 2048). The report underplays the hurdles that need to be cleared to lift the mining ban after 2048, including the significant role Antarctic claimant states, including Australia, will have if these discussions arise. I believe that the provisions of the Madrid protocol with respect to the mining ban are misunderstood not only by commentators, but, in some cases, by Treaty parties themselves. Global attitudes to Antarctic mineral exploitation (including to fossil duels) would have to change significantly, as would the attitude of Australia and other claimant states, before any country took the first step to revisiting the ban even 2048. Much recent Antarctic commentary is lacking by focussing on mining as the single or dominant motivation for countries such as Russia, China and India investing heavily in Antarctic science. An eye on the future may indeed be a motivation, but also strong are national pride in the significant global endeavour of Antarctic science; being a significant player in an important international treaty; and, increasingly, being involved in international efforts to understand climate change and its global impacts. The report rightly calls for increased investment in science.  Australia requires both the capability to fund high priority science, and to support it in the field.  But the emphasis in the Lowy report on a particular astronomy is misplaced. The report uses the argument that, somehow, the priorities of Australia’s science program, including climate science, “… [confines] Australia’s activities to the coast”; and that this could be relieved by investing in an astronomical facility at “ridge A”, the highest point in Antarctica. The first point to make on this proposition is that it is Australia’s logistics capabilities that restrict the geographical spread of our scientific effort in the Antarctic, not the scope of our science strategy. The second is that there are higher priority strategic science programs that have to be done in Antarctica – they can’t be done elsewhere. One example is the uncovering of past climate records from deep ice cores. Antarctica holds the world’s oldest ice.  One of the best places to recover an ice core that could reveal climate history up to one million years or more ago, is far inland from Casey station in the Australian Antarctic Territory. Recovering this ice core will make a significant contribution to global understanding of climate change: Australia must have the capacity to lead international efforts in this endeavour. The Lowy report is also timely considering the age of Aurora Australis.  Australia not only requires access to ice-breaking capability for both science and resupply, it also needs to maintain a high degree of self-reliance in its ability to support Australia’s Antarctic efforts. A recent letter from the Director of the US Office of Polar Programs to its science community highlighted the vulnerability that the US has in relying on another nation’s icebreaker to break a passage through the sea-ice to its key McMurdo station: without this capability US-supported science in Antarctica would be drastically reduced in order to avoid the forced closure of McMurdo and South Pole Stations.  Such a move would also directly impact the New Zealand Antarctic program which is heavily reliant on the US, and would likely spread wider. The report also makes the suggestion that the Australian Antarctic Division’s (AAD) policy unit be relocated to Canberra and that the Division itself be placed in the Attorney-General’s portfolio. To move the AAD into Attorney-General’s would certainly raise eyebrows in the international Antarctic community, and it would likely provoke questions about whether Australia was having doubts about its sovereign claim. And shifting the AAD’s policy function from Hobart to Canberra would have the consequence of undermining one of the great strengths of Australia’s Antarctic program: the close integration of policy, science and logistics in a dynamic program. This is one of the characteristic of Australia’s Antarctic efforts that is admired and even envied by other Antarctic players. I agree with the Lowy report’s emphasis on the preservation of Australia’s Antarctic claim and the need for its articulation in policy statements. In the aftermath of Australia’s abandonment of the Antarctic minerals convention and the decision to negotiate the environmental protocol, the Australian Government reaffirmed Australia’s Antarctic policy objectives, the first of which is “to preserve our sovereignty over the Australian Antarctic Territory, including our sovereign rights over the adjacent offshore areas”. Subsequent governments have reaffirmed these objectives.  Having these strategic clearly stated and publically available underlines the importance Australia places on its Antarctic interests. During the Centenary of the beginning of Sir Douglas Mawson’s heroic Antarctic endeavours, and the 75th anniversary of the proclamation of the Australian Antarctic Territory, it is indeed appropriate that Australia refocuses on our  Antarctic efforts and the fundamental reasons for our being there. Tony Press CEO Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre   Tony Press is the CEO of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre based at the University of Tasmania; former Director of the Australian Antarctic Division (1998-2008); former Australian Commissioner to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources; and former Chair of the Antarctic Treaty Committee for Environmental Protection.

Authorised by the CEO of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre October 2019.

The ACE CRC was established and supported under the Australian Government’s Cooperative Research Centres Program.

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