Australian Greens Additional Comments

Australian Greens Additional Comments

1.1Antarctica and the Southern Ocean play a significant role in regulating global weather patterns and studying them is critical to understanding our planet's rapidly changing climate.

1.2World-record temperature jumps, unprecedented low levels of marginal sea ice and concerning losses of biodiversity recently observed in Antarctica means there has never been a more important time for our nation to invest in Antarctic and Southern Ocean science, and the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) that delivers this science.

1.3Australia claims significant Antarctic territory and leadership in the Antarctic Treaty—the currency of which is deemed to be science. Our government has also recently formally accepted and acknowledged that Antarctic science is front and centre to the mission of our AAD.

1.4But in a classic case of 'watch what we do, not what we say', the AAD has not conducted a dedicated marine science voyage to the Antarctic or Southern Ocean for five years, nor conducted a marginal sea ice expedition for ten years. We also have a $500 million state of the art icebreaker and floating science platform that's been plagued with problems and delays to service since it was commissioned five years ago.

1.5Additional to this, evidence collected by this inquiry shows the number of scientists on Australian Antarctic bases has more than halved over the past decade. Science capabilities at the AAD have been in decline for years and operating budget constraints have led to a number of important science programs not being supported at this most critical time for researching the icy continent and the world's changing climate.

1.6Lastly, serious cultural issues at the AAD have continued to plague morale and have led to the loss of personnel and experienced Antarctic scientists, even after multiple reviews and changes of senior leadership.

1.7It was in this context that AAD staff received an email in July 2023, from the Head of the AAD, which outlined the need for the AAD to 'live within its means' and find $25 million (a significant portion of its operating budget) in savings across all AAD branches. This email led to staff anger and discontent, leaks to the media, and ultimately this Senate inquiry.

1.8While the AAD and the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW) admitted during the inquiry's hearings that budget matters were not communicated clearly with staff, it was more than poor communication responsible for this chain of events.

1.9After many tough years, the recruitment for 20 new positions was seen by some AAD staff as a sign that things were looking up. Yet this recruitment process was also frozen due to budget pressures. Additionally, disclosures of multimillion dollar spends on consultancies rubbed salt into the wounds of staff dealing with the consequences of new budget constraints. It was also noted within the AAD that multiple significant reviews into fixing the Division's ongoing structural and cultural problems had largely remained unactioned by both current and previous governments.

1.10Given these multiple pressures and other anxieties building over many years the conclusion could be drawn that senior management failed to read the room and showed a lack of foresight when initiating their process for the AAD to 'live within its means'. The internal budgetary email was a shock to many, especially those within the AAD's Science Branch, and proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back.

1.11In the face of all this, it was very timely for the Senate to scrutinise funding and governance at the AAD, to do its job of examining the transparency and accountability of government agencies, and to make important recommendations for improvement and change.

1.12This committee's job was facilitated and helped by the many relevant expert reviews and reports of recent years. It was also aided by numerous stakeholders and witnesses who provided evidence—people who care deeply about the future of Antarctic science, acting on climate change, and upholding Australia's responsibilities in Antarctica.

1.13As mentioned in this Senate report, there have been changes and positive developments at the AAD in recent months. While it's true that structural and cultural change may take time, there is no better time than now for our Government to make a significant long term investment in Antarctic science and our world-leading scientists, and put words into action.

1.14The Australian Greens would like to thank all witnesses who appeared both confidentially and on the public record, acknowledging it wasn't easy for many of them to do so. The Australian Greens would also like to thank staff and management at DCCEEW and the AAD for their cooperation and hours spent providing responses to questions on notice.

1.15The recommendations made by this inquiry are critical but should not be controversial, and the Australian Greens look forward to the Senate supporting and scrutinising their implementation in the months and years to come.

Senator Peter Whish-Wilson


Greens Senator for Tasmania