Rebecca Hingley takes a look at public engagement and government policy in three countries with a stake in Antarctica, and suggests that more needs to be done.
Antarctica is an anomaly within international relations. The vast, white, hostile, and barely-habitable landmass has enjoyed peaceful international governance without government since 1959, no small feat.
It’s a feat that has been made possible, in large part, by the four major international agreements that together form the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). But even with this governance system in place, can we expect these harmonious polar relations to continue? The answer could lie in understanding how countries form their relationships with the frozen continent – sometimes referred to as their Antarctic propinquities – a country’s emotional and conceptual ‘closeness’ to the frozen landmass.
While realpolitik is important, these more fluid social, cultural, ideological and even philosophical factors behind state-level decisions concerning Antarctica should not be ignored. Public engagement and government policy are two key factors that shape where Antarctica sits within the national psyche. Three countries’ histories with the continent – Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia – highlight how propinquities operate in practice, evolve, and what their geopolitical implications may be.
At one end of the spectrum is Australia, which has been a central player in Antarctic governance since the Antarctic Treaty (AT) was signed in 1959. But despite this long-standing connection, Australia’s domestic relationship with Antarctica is currently poor. Public engagement is limited and government policy is a snowdrift blown around by the changing winds of the political climate. A series of contradictory fiscal decisions over the past three years highlight the inconsistencies. In 2013 the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) suffered an 8 per cent budget cut. This was followed by a funding increase of $200 million over 10 years towards the Australian Antarctic program in April 2016, before an announcement not a month later of intended CSIRO redundancies that could jeopardise the future of the ICELAB – a critical climate change research facility. In September 2016, the government announced the closure of the research station on Macquarie Island for financial reasons then backtracked on the decision just three days later following a media backlash spurred by political and scientific community members.
In direct contrast to Australia, New Zealand’s affinity with Antarctica remains strong. New Zealand has nurtured a kinship with Antarctica ever since its first contact with the continent in the 19th century. It has participated enthusiastically throughout Antarctica’s anthropological history, within the establishment of the ATS, and during the current era of climate change research in particular.
High levels of support for Antarctica from both the general population and the government are achieved through a system of continuous mutual reinforcement of easily-accessible educational resources including classroom activities, information for travelling to Antarctica, and scholarships. Furthermore, well-established and available community and professional programs build public awareness, engagement and support. This support ensures the government maintains funding for such activities, which in turn promotes public interest and so the cycle continues.
Malaysia is somewhere between these two extremes, steadily developing its relationship with Antarctica. Malaysian involvement in Antarctica began with the ‘Question of Antarctica’ presented to the United Nations General Assembly in 1983 by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed. He claimed that Antarctica was a ‘gentlemen’s club’ that included the global north and excluded the global south, arguing that it should instead be treated as a common heritage for mankind accessible to all. This attempt to achieve equity eventually faltered with Malaysia ceding to the status quo in its ratification of the AT in 2011.
Recently, the younger population’s knowledge of Antarctica and support for relevant government policy has grown. An inspirational video released in 2011 titled ‘My King and Emperor in Antarctica: Malaysia’s Journey to the Ice’, the introduction of a polar Fellowship Scheme, a ‘Women in Antarctica’ program, and the recent hosting of a Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) conference, are examples of the government’s efforts to advance Malaysia’s Antarctic program and raise its public profile.
The examples of Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia demonstrate that there is much more to Antarctic geopolitics than just the 1959 treaty and state-issued foreign policy pronouncements. But a focus on these traditional approaches has led to a precarious position for Australia. Because while the country may hold ‘claim’ to almost half of the continent, it runs the risk of being seen as a pariah by the global community due to its pursuit of a foreign policy whose main objectives concern sovereignty and security and is often hostile in nature. Additionally, the country’s failure to make an unwavering commitment to climate change research in the region could potentially further damage its international standing in Antarctica.
What is required is cultural change, and there are specific steps Australia can take to begin this transformation.
The government must escape the mindset that assumes national interest is synonymous with traditional notions of statehood, such as sovereignty. There is more at stake here. To honour Antarctica’s peaceful purpose the government should strengthen ties with its fellow ATS members, make a steadfast commitment to climate change research, and establish an Antarctic mandate at home. Forming an AAD ‘Policy and Public Relations Office’ in Canberra would be one way of achieving this.
Policies to raise public awareness and promote the Antarctic agenda should also be pursued. Here Australia could look to its neighbour, New Zealand, and adopt similar approaches – whether it be improving information resources, constructing an educative Antarctic attraction or conducting a survey to gauge current public understandings of Antarctica. There is a role here too for the academic community which must strive to advance the Humanities, which have to date lagged far behind the Sciences within Antarctic studies. Together, these efforts have the potential to fill the cracks in Australia’s understanding of, and commitment to, the Antarctic.