Freeze change: strengthening Australia’s Antarctic efforts

Should the country have an Ambassador to the ice?

Anthony Bergin

Government and governance, International relations | Australia, The World

2 July 2018

From mining icebergs to nuclear submarines, international attention is increasingly turning to Antarctica. Australia’s revitalised focus on the frozen continent couldn’t come at a more appropriate time, Anthony Bergin writes.

The frozen continent of Antarctica, so often described as remote, is becoming more accessible.

There has been a significant growth in tourist numbers down south, with calls for greater regulation

China’s Antarctic program is moving ahead, with its fifth research station set for Inexpressible Island in Terra Nova Bay in the southern Ross Sea. Beijing has also recently sent its first commercial tourist flight to Antarctica and is building the state’s first polar cruise ship. Just this month, the country’s National Nuclear Corporation put out to tender for the nation’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker.

On the resources side, there has been increased interest in harvesting icebergs. A South African marine salvage expert has a plan to tow icebergs to Cape Town to ease the city’s water crisis. There’s nothing in the Madrid Protocol on banning mining on the continent that would prohibit such an industry: ice isn’t considered a mineral.

And there’s more geopolitical interest down south. In May this year, Belarus said it would apply for decision-making consultative status under the Antarctic treaty, while Turkey’s Minister of Industry and Technology recently announced that his country was planning to establish a scientific base in Antarctica.

Against the background of these, and other developments, the Australian Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories recently tabled its report on Maintaining Australia’s national interests in Antarctica: Inquiry into Australia’s Antarctic Territory.

More on this: Cracks in the ice

The report makes 22 recommendations, including a suggestion to appoint an Antarctic Ambassador to oversee Australia’s diplomatic activities and provide leadership in promoting the country’s Antarctic interests internationally.

At one level Australia appointing an Antarctic Ambassador appears to be an odd post: as a country that claims 42 per cent of the white continent, it’s a bit like appointing an Ambassador to its own country.

The report doesn’t really spell out what the role would do. But presumably, the Ambassador would be a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officer.

Australia already has a number of Ambassadors for specific policy issues, ranging from counter-terrorism, cyber security, people smuggling, women and girls, and the environment.

I’ve argued for such a position in the past, and on balance I’d still suggest an Antarctic Ambassador could provide greater prominence to Antarctica in Australia’s international policy. It would allow the country to get ahead of the game in terms of emerging Antarctic issues.

An Antarctic Ambassador could enhance national whole-of-government efforts – including with the Tasmanian state government – relating to Australia’s southern interests.

The role could also improve our influence in the Antarctic treaty system over the longer term if we allowed the incumbent to remain in the post for more than the normal posting cycle.

There’s one surprising gap in the report, however. The Committee didn’t pick up the suggestion by Tony Press in his 2014 review of our Antarctic strategy to appoint an Administrator for Antarctica and Heard and McDonald islands.

Press didn’t outline his reasons for suggesting this position, but I think it’s worth considering establishing this as a part-time role. The British and French already have similar positions and it would send the right message about the degree to which Australia takes its sovereign claim seriously.

The Press review suggested that the head of Australia’s Antarctic Division hold the post ex-officio.

But in governance terms it would surely be better to split this position from the Division. That’s because the Antarctic Division is the biggest operator in our polar real estate. In effect, the Division is both the proponent and the approver of its own permits. That’s not ideal.

The Administrator could be located in the Territories area within the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities.

The Committee suggested strengthening polar search and rescue planning. That’s sensible, given the expected rise in marine traffic in Antarctic waters.

Recently-released figures showed that 45 private yachts were spotted in sensitive Antarctic waters over the last southern summer season. That’s up by one-third on the previous year.

But for Australia, there’s no getting away from the fact that search and rescue response is hard with only one polar ship. When a tourist ship got stuck in our area in 2014 and the ice was too thick for our vessel to undertake a rescue it showed Australia couldn’t look after its own patch. Australia’s new polar vessel, expected to arrive in 2020 will certainly help.

The Committee recommends a formal site inspection in eastern Antarctica is conducted within the next year. There’s no question Australia should be more active in inspections and not just on its own, but also with others. It may be the suggestion here was code for undertaking an inspection at the Chinese Kunlun station that’s located in Australia’s territory.

More on this: Australia in the Pacific Century

The report’s suggestion that CSIRO’s research ship, RV Investigator, be able to operate at its full capacity is useful. The latest budget provided an expansion from 150 to 300 days operation for the ship. But this isn’t a dedicated Antarctic specific ship, even though the vessel can go to the ice edge.

I liked the Committee’s suggestion that the Antarctic Division be given budget certainty. The investments being made in the new polar ship and the recent commitment to develop a business case for an all-year runway near Davis station are not insignificant.

But the lead times to work in Antarctica are very long. Budget certainty is critical: without it the discretionary part of the Antarctic budget that’s cut is the science. It may even be worth a distinct budget line rather than being part of the Environment department’s budget.

A more ambitious way to secure longer-term budget certainty would be turning the Antarctic Division into a statutory authority.

There’s a suggestion in the report that an Office of Antarctic Services be created to promote Hobart as the gateway for polar programs. I’m not sure why the Committee wants to give that to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) – it’s really a public relations job.

Tasmania already has an Antarctic Office in its state bureaucracy. There’s a private sector Tasmanian polar network, an Antarctic Gateway partnership to promote polar research in Tasmania, a DFAT Hobart office and a Commonwealth City Deal agreement for Hobart that includes the development of an Antarctic precinct.

It’s a fact, however, that there’s no focal point that links Commonwealth and state efforts in Antarctic promotion. But it’s worth noting that there are four other cities that are recognised international Antarctic gateways: Cape Town, Christchurch, Punta Arenas and Ushuaia.

A statement of intent between the five cities was signed nine years ago to exchange expertise about the continent, although nothing much has happened since. An Office of Antarctic Services, if it were established, might look at developing these city connections.

Finally, as the Committee suggests, it makes sense to look at our ageing Antarctic asset base. In particular, we should be investing long-term to develop modern inter-continental capabilities to support increased scientific research cooperation.

Overall the Committee offers some useful, although pretty tame, suggestions for strengthening our Antarctic policy. Like national security more generally, Antarctic policy isn’t an area where you can afford to just freeze and forget. 

This piece is published in partnership with ASPI’s The Strategist.

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