Coalition Senators' Additional Comments

Coalition Senators' Additional Comments


1.1Coalition Senators are pleased to have initiated this inquiry.We are also pleased to have received the formal support of the Greens for our Terms of Reference and for our motion to establish the inquiry when it was introduced (and agreed to) in the Senate on 9 August 2023.

1.2In keeping with that spirit of co-operation with the Greens, in particular, we are also now pleased to agree with the overwhelming majority of the content and recommendations in the Chair's Report.

1.3There are, nonetheless, some finer points on which we have contrasting views and a range of further issues to which we wish to devote attention—and that is the reason that we have chosen to write this set of Additional Comments.

Key inquiry issues – and the Albanese Government's failures

1.4At the commencement of the inquiry, Coalition Senators had envisaged that we would principally be scrutinising the reasons for, and consequences of, a $25million cut to the annual operating budget of the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD).

1.5The figure of $25 million equated to as much as a 16percent cut of that budget—yet it had been completely hidden from the Australian public until a whistleblower bravely provided the details to ABC Radio in Hobart in late July2023.

1.6However, the focus of the inquiry soon widened.

1.7This was because we (and almost everyone else outside of AAD senior management and the highly secretive Albanese Government) did not yet know at the time of the inquiry’s establishment that there was actually a significantly bigger hole in the AAD’s finances than one of $25 million.

1.8Ultimately, it became apparent that there had also been an extraordinary overspend at the Division of $41.4 million during the 2022-23 financial year.Inturn, this had necessitated an urgent search for substantial financial savings.

1.9Shamefully, instead of being transparent and honest about these matters, a succession of Labor MPs and Senators compounded the situation by inferring that there were no problems, no changes in relation to employment opportunities at the AAD, no cutting of science initiatives and programs, and no alterations to the use of the extra $804.4 million funding package that the Morrison Government had provided in early 2022.

1.10Just as brazenly, they attempted to claim that the Labor Party has been more substantially funding the AAD than the Coalition even when this is quite plainly not the case.Indeed, by the time the Morrison Government left office, there had been a 112percent increase in annual funding to the AAD and other Antarctic measures under the Coalition compared to the Rudd and Gillard governments.Additionally, under the Albanese Government, 2023-24 has represented the first financial year in close to a decade in which the AAD's annual allocations have been reduced.

1.11On 29 July 2023, the Federal Infrastructure Minister, Catherine King MP, said—for example—that ''there are no budget cuts to the Antarctic Division, that $804million continues to be implemented by Minister Plibersek's portfolio and we are very, very supportive of continuing this incredible gateway here in Tasmania''.[1]

1.12The Foreign Affairs Minister, Senator Penny Wong, said in Senate Question Time on 3 August 2023 that ''the advice I have is that there has been no government decision to cut spending to the Antarctic program".[2]

1.13On 7 August 2023, the Federal Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Senator Carol Brown, told Parliament that ''there have been no cuts to the $804 million budget for the Antarctic Division—not a cent ... there will be no job cuts ... In fact, more people will gain full-time employment ...the critical, world-leading science will continue. The work is essential work''.[3]

1.14On 8 August 2023, Tasmanian Labor Senator, Catryna Bilyk, said that ''the truth is that this government is committed to continuing its support for the worldclass research carried out by the AAD''.[4]

1.15And, on 24 April 2024, in a form of slapstick to make Comical Ali blush, the Federal Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, ludicrously tried to assert that the recent financial problems at the AAD were all somehow the fault of the former Coalition government.[5]

1.16As became increasingly evident throughout the course of the inquiry, it is her own missteps, inaction and disinterest that have played a major role in now leaving the AAD in a significant financial mess.

1.17For all of Labor's carefully-worded semantics that no cuts were specifically initiated by them, the clear reality is that there has been a substantial reduction in the funding available for the AAD (and other individuals and organisations dependent on them) under the Albanese Government's remit.In a considerable number of cases, previously-funded and previously-scheduled science and research work has been compromised.

1.18Likewise, for all of the vehemence of their denials to this effect, it is obvious that the Albanese Government knew from at least as early as March or April 2023 that there were very serious financial problems at the AAD—and that there was an urgent imperative for cuts to be made. It is also now evident that MsPlibersek made a clear decision not to proactively involve herself in finding solutions to these problems. Alarmingly, no Ministerial intervention or discernible action resulted in response to the advice that she had received.

1.19In short, tens of millions of dollars were lost from the AAD's budget, and the Government (very consciously) chose not to replace or supplement them.Subsequently, this has led to a range of further serious repercussions.

1.20Labor's clear awareness of these problems was confirmed beyond all doubt when the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW) acknowledged, at the public hearing of 24 April 2024 and in a subsequent answer to a Question on Notice, that Ms Plibersek's office was directly and explicitly informed in July 2023 that there had been an overspend in the order of $42 million.[6]

1.21Moreover, DCCEEW's Deputy Secretary Mr Sean Sullivan provided evidence, at the public hearing of 24 April 2024, that Ms Plibersek was being kept regularly advised of financial pressures at the AAD from at least as early as March or April 2023.This evidence was consistent with the answer to Question on Notice IQ23-000265, which stated that the Minister was regularly updated at that time on the relevant issues—as well as that the DCCEEW Executive were holding weekly meetings with her to update her on matters across the portfolio.[7]

1.22It is a grave Ministerial failure that Ms Plibersek did nothing to help to address, let alone overcome, these financial and associated problems. It is likewise remarkable that all of the various denials by Labor figures about difficulties at the AAD were made in the face of leaked all-staff emails from AAD Head, MsEmma Campbell, that unequivocally spoke of a range of suffocating budgetary pressures.

1.23Equally, it is utterly galling that Ms Plibersek and a number of her colleagues then tried to present a false impression to the Australian public by sneakily denying any problems, including that any cuts were occurring or even being contemplated. Far from being committed to 'continuing support' for world-class Antarctic science, and securing jobs, Labor were doing the very opposite.They threw the AAD under the proverbial bus, left them to their own devices to deal with an extraordinary budget shortfall, and failed to disclose anything about this mess to the Parliament or to Australian taxpayers.

1.24Clearly, there was an orchestrated campaign devised from within the Labor Party to shift and apportion blame to the AAD itself—and to try to insulate the Minister (and Government) from responsibility, scrutiny and criticism. This reality was reinforced by a telling answer to Question on Notice IQ23-000290 that specifically said that actions around the management of DCCEEW's operating and staffing budget and the annual appropriations provided by the Parliament were "not a Ministerial responsibility".[8]

1.25All the while, Ms Campbell's emails were clearly speaking to an accelerating funding crisis that demanded serious and active intervention from the Government.

1.26Shockingly, these were far from the only issues canvassed by this inquiry that were the subject of Labor inaction, denials and cover-ups.Indeed, this inquiry has elicited a wide range of information that has pointed, yet again, to the Albanese Government’s penchant and determination for trying to keep information about their actions, and their gross negligence and incompetence, hidden from the Australian people.

1.27It would actually have been better for everyone (including the Government) if the information about the very serious financial problems at the AAD had been disclosed immediately to the Australian public, including to the members of this committee.

1.28Instead, the Government, DCCEEW and AAD were plagued by a steady stream of embarrassing revelations throughout the duration of this inquiry.

1.29Once the existence of the extraordinary overspend was finally disclosed (by AAD officials on 5 October 2023), a host of further allegations and revelations ensued about the myriad ramifications of this mismanagement.

1.30As part of this, the Guardian Australia journalist, Henry Belot, was provided with evidence that the AAD had been working fastidiously on a 'hit list' of measures and programs that could potentially be cut.Mr Belot reported that as many as 56 separate initiatives had been included on this list in the name of an urgent search for savings.[9]

1.31Subsequent questions on notice, and at the public hearings, elicited various responses that confirmed the veracity of Mr Belot's reporting that a multitude of programs and funding commitments had been earmarked for potential cutting and/or deferral or termination.

1.32Notwithstanding that one of AAD's responses to this reporting was that this activity was simply all part of a normal annual process, the preparation of such a list appeared to us to be entirely in keeping with a number of the clearly very rare and unusual statements in the all-staff emails authored in July 2023 by MsCampbell.

1.33Despite Labor parliamentarians' similar insistence that there was 'nothing to see here', it soon became obvious that there was a major funding crisis—and that, as MrBelot reported, dozens of vitally important projects and activities were ''set to be cancelled, delayed or restricted due to budget pressures at the Australian Antarctic Division''.

1.34His report, many other articles, and numerous behind-the-scenes conversations and meetings with stakeholders, also graphically confirmed to us that there was significant, growing discontent among staff—and the Australian and international science community more generally—about these problems.

1.35The basic reality is that, in relation to the funding of Antarctic science and research, there has been a 180-degree shift in culture, and in Ministerial engagement and interest, since the Albanese Government came to power.

1.36Indeed, a considerable amount of the evidence at the inquiry drew into sharp distinction the very different approaches taken by the Coalition and Labor governments to Antarctic issues and priorities.

1.37The previous Coalition Environment Minister, Sussan Ley MP, specifically made Antarctic funding a genuine priority. She answered the call for intervention and proactivity every time that it was necessary, including in relation to responding to a series of challenging issues associated with using the $1.9billion committed by the Coalition Government to building and operating the RSV Nuyina.

1.38Above all, the evidence that was provided throughout the course of the inquiry steadily built a picture of considerable disinterest and neglect from the Albanese Government—and especially Ministers Plibersek and Wong—in relation to the management of Australia's Antarctic Program and broader, accompanying, international relations on a range of vital Antarctic issues.

1.39It is truly embarrassing that the only forms of response Ms Plibersek appears to have been able to muster publicly in the wake of these major failings on her own part (especially relating to events in July 2023) are to odiously blame another government that left office in May 2022.

1.40One of the few public utterances from Ms Plibersek about Antarctic issues came in the form of a highly-provocative tweet, written on 5 October 2023, that sought to entirely blame the Coalition for a 2023 decision that the RSV Nuyina would not be approved to travel under the Tasman Bridge in Hobart.

1.41When it was subsequently proven that this assertion was highly inaccurate (and the outcome came after sustained, direct deliberations and negotiations between TasPorts and the AAD over a number of years), there was not even a retraction of that absurd claim.

1.42We do accept that Ms Plibersek had seized here on TasPorts' attempts, through their evidence at the public hearing of 4 October 2023, to imply that there had not been adequate work and discussions with them on the dimensions of the RSV Nuyina. However, it was later made quite clear by the AAD that there had been years of detailed and complex discussions between them and TasPorts on this very topic—and that they had naturally made TasPorts aware on an ongoing basis of all relevant issues associated with the new icebreaker.

1.43Ironically, it was later revealed that Ms Plibersek's own office was simultaneously and ferociously trying to prevent the Australian people from knowing about her own handling of the testing of Nuyina’s navigational capabilities.

1.44Documents obtained under Freedom of Information showed that the Minister's office was informed in early August 2023 about the rejection of the Nuyina travelling under the Tasman Bridge. Yet, just like her reaction to the $41.4million overspend, she appears to have taken no practical action on the issue.

1.45Extraordinarily, Ms Campbell was moved to write to her senior staff in an email on 2 August 2023 that, ''Minister's office is very sensitive about 'leaking' so please keep this very close until the appropriate time/a decision is communicated''.[10]

1.46When pressured in House of Representatives Question Time on 16 October 2023, the Environment Minister also (weirdly) answered that she was 'getting things back on track' in relation to the AAD.[11]However, she was unable at the time, or any subsequent occasion, to specify what she actually meant in practical terms by this.

1.47Questioning during this inquiry also unearthed that Ministerial inaction and indifference was not confined to Ms Plibersek alone.

1.48Notwithstanding that she is Australia's Foreign Minister, Minister Wong also seems to have paid barely any attention to Antarctic issues during her two years in that role. Similarly, it is not clear that the Science Minister, Mr Husic, has been particularly exercised about (or involved in addressing) a variety of issues ventilated in this inquiry.

1.49As the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) made clear in its evidence at the public hearing of 4 October 2023, there was considerable hope and optimism about the future before the Albanese Government came to power. It told the committee that the 2023 changes to the AAD's operating budget were ''demoralising'' and ''a kick in the guts''—especially after staff had felt the 'foot had finally been taken from the back of their necks' during the former Coalition Government’s period in office.[12]

1.50Earlier in the year, the CPSU Tasmania Secretary, Zac Batchelor, had said of the revelations about the $25 million funding hole that AAD staff now felt that crucial scientific research was not safe and that everyone was ''scratching their head, trying to understand this budget shortfall''.[13]

1.51Similar concerns were widely expressed about the onset of sudden and considerable uncertainty for many scientists, including numerous early career researchers.

1.52Entitled 'Australia’s Antarctic budget cuts a terrible blow for science', an article written by Gemma Conroy for the 'Nature' website on 16 August 2023 perfectly encapsulated the broader mood. It contained gloomy observations from a number of scientists and researchers both domestically and abroad.[14]

1.53Separately, UNSW Antarctic oceanography expert, Jan Zika, went as far as to tell the ABC in late July 2023 that the reported cuts to the AAD's budget were ''catastrophic''.[15]

1.54All of this uncertainty and discomfort has not been alleviated by any actions from Ministers Plibersek, Wong or Husic, or the relevant agencies, ever since.Indeed, it is our view that the situation has only deteriorated—insofar as that has even been possible from such a terrible starting point.

1.55Over recent months, we have lost count of the number of claims, incidents and anecdotes that have been relayed to us about the collapse in morale amongst AAD staff.A number of the witnesses at the public hearings, especially on 4October 2023 (even before the additional $41.4 overspend was revealed), also spoke about this problem.

1.56Representing the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, Dr Ian Allison AO said that even the original $25 million budget shortfall would have:

… a large and ongoing impact on Australia's ability to monitor, understand and predict Antarctic and Southern Ocean environmental systems, on Australia's standing as an international leader in Antarctic and Southern Ocean science and on Antarctic Division staff morale.[16]

1.57Dr Allison added that the AAD staff to whom he had spoken specifically about the loss of the $25 million were ''very unhappy and very disillusioned … they used to be quite happy with their lot, but they complain a lot now''.[17]

1.58Similarly, Dr Tony Press said at the 4 October 2023 hearing that morale was already ''quite low'' across the Antarctic science community. It should also be observed that, at the time of writing, sustained industrial action from the current staff is also underway.[18]

1.59We have also repeatedly been advised that, in the time since the Albanese Government came to power, there has been growing consternation about a number of changes that have (secretly) been made internally to the ways in which the former Coalition Government's $804.4 million boost to Antarctic funding in February 2022 is now being used.

1.60That very significant amount of taxpayers' money was originally provided for a number of very specifically-defined purposes. Indeed, it was deliberately designed in such a way to complement earlier funding for Antarctic science, research and infrastructure from the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments to the tune of multiple billions of dollars. Yet it appears that, not long after the Coalition left office, a series of these purposes and commitments began to be ignored by the new regime.

1.61At least some of the money has clearly been shifted away and, probably quite frequently, used to try to plug some of the growing holes elsewhere in the AAD budget.

1.62We have sought more detail about this on multiple occasions.However, even by the end of this nine-month-long inquiry process, we have regrettably still not been provided with clear answers in response to these claims. The plainly deliberate, ongoing avoidance of Senators' questions have left us unable to reach fully-conclusive judgements about whether these allegations are true. Nevertheless, on the (overwhelming) balance of probabilities, we are now confident that this substantial quantum of money is being (mis)used for other purposes.

1.63Prior to the public hearing of 24 April 2024, Senator Duniam asked through the committee secretariat that at least one of the AAD and DCCEEW witnesses bring with them a full, itemised list of commitments in the original and comprehensive $804.4 million funding package announced by the Coalition Government in early 2022.

1.64Yet even this simple request was not respected—and the appropriate document was not provided. While DCCEEW presented a document,[19] it repeated alreadyknown information and provided no hint of the granular detail which Senators had been persistently seeking.

1.65This was clearly not only a substantial abuse of the Senate inquiry process, but also reinforced an already inescapable impression that the relevant officials had something (or, perhaps, many things) to hide.

1.66By this point, it had already become apparent that the original commitment in the $804.4 million package to securing 40 additional AAD jobs had not been honoured subsequently. Relatively early in the inquiry, officials from the AAD and from DCCEEW were forced to concede that—at best—only four of the 40had been filled.

1.67As another related problem, the Division had still been unable—at the time of writing—to attract a new Chief Scientist to fill the major void left by the departure of the previous occupant of the position, Professor Nicole Webster, on 22 December 2023.

1.68Of course, this scenario of key departures and of job freezes represented quite a contrast from the statements made in late July and early August 2023 by LaborMPs and Senators.

1.69In not dissimilar fashion, it also became apparent that the extra $32 million (in addition to the $804.4 million) that was made available in early 2022 by the Coalition as a contingency for any further unforeseen shipping-associated costs must have been expended very quickly after our government left office. If it had not been for us providing this money, then one can only assume the ultimate $41.4 million overspend would have been even larger.

1.70Similarly, by the end of the inquiry, the Coalition was able to identify what looked like at least two other major forms of interference with the original $804.4million package of commitments.

1.71Firstly, it came to our attention that funding that had been earmarked to support the operation of Geoscience Australia's Digital Earth Program had likely all (or almost all) been withdrawn as a result of a decision made somewhere within the AAD. We understand that, in turn, this created a number of ripple effects at Geoscience Australia—which had to significantly scale back its own resourcing of the program as a result.

1.72Sadly, we again had to pursue this issue on multiple occasions as a result of the failure of DCCEEW to provide anything more than a hopelessly scant answer to at least one Question on Notice. On 6 May 2024, yet another incomplete answer (this time, to IQ24-000080) on this matter was supplied.[20]

1.73Secondly, we asked a number of questions (especially at the hearing of 24 April 2024) about the lack of fulfilment of the commitments to aviation services. Ourunderstanding is that AAD has almost certainly cost the Australian taxpayer significant amounts of money given that there have been huge blowouts in the timelines around new tenders and contracts.

1.74The answer to Question on Notice IQ24-000081 has confirmed that there has been a raw increase in the cost associated with re-contracting the existing providers.[21]However, there has not yet been any kind of indication of whether better value for money might have been achieved by exploring in detail a more cost-effective alternative.

1.75Evidence provided at the 24 April 2024 hearing revealed that another supplier had offered their services—but it appears that the AAD simply referred that potential contractor back to the severely-delayed tender process!

1.76The audacious responses to Questions on Notice IQ23-000323[22] give us little to no assurance that several other aspects of the $804.4 million package have not been fundamentally altered as well.In fact, we suspect that several of the line items in the (still unsupplied) full, original SRF funding list have almost certainly been 'reprofiled'.

1.77Furthermore, we also have little confidence that the extra $92.2 million of general-purpose annual funding that was set aside for use in each year from 2026-27 onwards has, by now, been left untouched.

Labor's departure from history

1.78Historically, there has generally been multipartisan support across Australia's Federal Parliament for intensive involvement by our country in relation to Antarctica.

1.79The matters at the heart of this inquiry are extremely important for all Australians with an interest in Antarctic science and research, and the conservation and protection of the 'frozen continent'.

1.80Australia has been revered, for many decades now, as a global leader in Antarctic science and strategy. Accordingly, whenever any of our governments equivocates on, or reduces, our level of commitment, the impacts reverberate widely.

1.81That has been true in each of the last two terms of Federal Labor governments.

1.82It took time and effort for the Coalition to restore that damage when we were returned to government between 2013 and 2022. As has been noted earlier in this document, that work encompassed the painstaking consideration and allocation of many billions of dollars, and culminated in the widely and strongly welcomed 10-year funding package that was unveiled shortly before we lost government.

1.83To see funding cuts, and frantic quests for savings, manifest themselves again in the first term of another Labor government is genuinely disheartening.

1.84The history shows that this is a very different approach to the one employed by the previous government—which continued to extensively support and fund the AAD, including on each of the occasions when unforeseen shippingassociated costs needed to be paid.

1.85Sadly, it appears that the sum of $32 million provided shortly before the 2022 Federal election (specifically to ensure that there was a very well-funded contingency reserve for the next government to use if there was any continuation of shipping-associated problems) appears to have been fully expended at some point in 2022-23. It also seems that Ms Plibersek—as has been true in so many areas of the Environment portfolio—has not subsequently committed a single further dollar to this end.

1.86It also appears to be the case that Ms Plibersek has failed to make a number of other time-sensitive decisions in relation to Australia’s Antarctic Program. Bythe end of the inquiry, it remained unclear how she was proposing to continue to fund a host of other measures that will otherwise have their current funding provision terminate in forthcoming years.

1.87Generally speaking, we agree with the sentiments of the many witnesses who told the inquiry that—not least because of the current financial problems—there now needs to be a more holistic Antarctic funding model. This is especially important given that many Antarctic science and research activities are multiyear exercises. Indeed, the need for long-term funding certainty was the key reason that the former Coalition Government spread various elements of the new $804.4 million package out over a 10-year period.

1.88Just like she has done with her wider, long-promised overhaul of national environmental laws, Ms Plibersek has also presided over a number of chronically delayed and deferred decisions. It is astonishing to us, for instance, that she has failed to undertake the work necessary to have finalised the Decadal Plan and that there is still no sign of it being completed at any time soon.

1.89This abrogation of her basic Ministerial functions, in turn, has unfortunately also created many other adverse flow-on effects.

1.90A range of uncertainties in relation to Antarctic infrastructure are also increasing under her absence of leadership.

1.91It is clear that, for the betterment of Australia's Antarctic science and research activity, there needs to a commercial dedicated lease of Wharf 6 at Macquarie Point in Hobart for the RSV Nuyina.Indeed, this issue was the subject of many questions and answers during this inquiry.

1.92The Tasmanian Deputy Premier, Michael Ferguson, also made a particularly important contribution to this debate when he clarified, on the public record on 23 November 2023, that it is the Federal Government's intransigence that has been responsible for stalling this deal.

1.93Similarly, under the Albanese Government, the future of the Antarctic and Science Precinct, and any potential upgrade of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) headquarters, in Hobart remain shrouded in doubt.Not too long ago, we had assumed that there was multipartisan support for the creation of the Antarctic and Science Precinct at Macquarie Point, but now we are not so sure.

1.94At various times during the inquiry, we also had cause to become concerned by what appears to have become a growing acceptance among many of the current key players and decision makers that there should be an increase in the role and authority of centralised bodies and organisations in Canberra. If left unchecked, this agenda will inevitably further reduce the level of specialised, dedicated Antarctic work being undertaken elsewhere in the country (and the multiple spinoff benefits), especially in Tasmania.

1.95It is beyond jarring that these kinds of decisions are being strenuously avoided, but that approval has been given, during this term of government, for spending by the AAD of almost $40,000 on ''sunglasses for extreme climate'' and another $17,000 on earmuffs, high visibility jackets and pants.


Edits to Chair’s Report Recommendations

1.96Given the overspending that has already occurred at the AAD, we are not inclined to support the small set of calls for open-ended new funding among the recommendations in the Chair's Report.

1.97Similarly, we are not inclined to support further formal reviews—after so many have already been exhaustively undertaken over recent years.

1.98Instead, we recommend that the Government examine the potential viability and the full financial implications of Recommendations 2, 9 and 14—and that, rather than initiating a mass of new reviews, the Federal Environment Minister take up key recommendations from earlier inquiries to make appropriate changes to her current chaotic, confused and hands-off approach to Antarctic policy and Australia’s geopolitical interests.

New Coalition Recommendations

1.99In addition to the recommendations made in the Chair’s Report, the Coalition also makes the following new recommendations:

Recommendation 1

1.100That Minister the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP clearly explain on the public record, including in a Ministerial Statement to Parliament, why she failed to heed the advice—provided to her from as least as early as March or April 2023—that there were a range of financial and associated pressures mounting at the Australian Antarctic Division.

Recommendation 2

1.101That Minister the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP clearly explain on the public record, including in a Ministerial Statement to Parliament, why she failed to take any practical action following her office being directly advised, in July2023, that there had been an extraordinary overspend of $41.4million at the Australian Antarctic Division.

Recommendation 3

1.102That the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water immediately publicly release the full, itemised list of commitments in the original and comprehensive $804.4 million funding package announced by the Coalition Government in early 2022—as well as an up-to-date, revised list of how much has been spent on each of those items and how much remains to be spent. There also needs to be a clear indication for each item of how much money has been shifted away from them—and to where this money has been redirected.

Recommendation 4

1.103That the Albanese Government immediately commit, in writing, to no further reductions during its time in office of the Australian Antarctic Division’s footprint in Hobart.

1.104As part of this, the Government should commit to finalising and delivering new funding and development plans for the Macquarie Wharf upgrades and fuel barge as a matter of urgency.Similarly, they must urgently clarify and finalise their plans for the construction of the Antarctic and Science Precinct, and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources headquarters.

Recommendation 5

1.105That TasPorts be explicitly instructed, and/or even mandated by changes to its charter conditions, by the Tasmanian and Federal governments to work more cooperatively and proactively with other stakeholders.

Recommendation 6

1.106That the Albanese Government immediately oversee a significant improvement in the quality of answers to questions asked at Parliamentary hearings and on notice—in a direct reversal of their (recently-leaked) instructions to public servants to the completely opposite effect.

Recommendation 7

1.107That a further private hearing of the committee be held to examine whether certain witnesses should be regarded as having been in contempt of their obligations to this inquiry process, and whether other potential witnesses may have been bullied into deciding not to participate.

Acknowledgments, and closing comments

1.108As part of these Additional Comments, we would like to place on record our gratitude to the many participants in this inquiry.

1.109In the overwhelming majority of cases, those people brought to the inquiry considerable insight and expertise—as well as genuine dedication and commitment to the cause of ensuring that Australia conducts itself in Antarctic affairs to the absolute best of its ability.

1.110It was a privilege to receive their evidence.

1.111We would also like to very sincerely thank the many people who provided information to us on a confidential basis. The Coalition greatly respects that they engaged with us even in the face of the risks that they felt that they might potentially encounter in doing so.

1.112On a related front, we understand that there was another group of people who wanted to contribute—but considered that they were putting themselves at too much jeopardy in such circumstances. We are disappointed that this is the case and express our considerable sympathy that they found themselves in such a discomfiting position.

1.113Amid one of the more challenging and congested Senate inquiry 'seasons' in recent memory, we would also like to pay tribute and express our thanks to everyone who has worked on the committee secretariat.Our Senators and staff have needed to engage with them on a very regular basis throughout this inquiry, and we have been extremely grateful for their readiness (and cheerfulness!) at all times in assisting and advising us.

1.114All of those positive acknowledgments made, we unfortunately also feel compelled to note our disappointment with two of the public sector agencies that were called as witnesses—namely, DCCEEW (and, under its auspices, the AAD), and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

1.115Sadly, it has become very clear over the past two years that many public servants have been placed in the extremely uncomfortable and awkward position by the Albanese Government of being instructed not to provide full and accurate information to the public, including to other members of Parliament.

1.116As one example in this inquiry, multiple questions were asked about when the Division, Department and Ms Plibersek all first became aware of the extraordinary overspend.

1.117These included Questions on Notice IQ23-000265, IQ23-000312, IQ23-000323 and IQ23-000290, as well as various questions at public hearings.[23]

1.118Yet it was only when these same or similar questions were asked at the public hearing by as late as 24 April 2024 that we finally received genuine and direct answers. To the credit of Mr Robert Hanlon, he provided open, clear and frank responses to these questions where (multiple) others before him had not.

1.119Instances of stonewalling such as these meant that the same ground was often traversed more than once in the inquiry. It therefore contributed to more public hearings—and therefore more pressures on the time and resources (including increased travel, and travel costs) of numerous people than should ever have been the case.

1.120We take the point made by Mr Sullivan at the 24 April 2024 hearing that DCCEEW staff had been answering Questions on Notice on a more regular basis for this inquiry than normal. However, he also needs to carefully reflect on how (poorly and evasively) many of those questions were answered.

1.121It is worth noting that this stonewalling also had ramifications for the workloads of other people well beyond DCCEEW. Indeed, the inability and/or unwillingness of Departmental staff to provide fulsome, frank and honest answers also then added considerably to the workload of the committee secretariat and to Senators and their staff—who themselves then needed to spend many more hours trawling transcripts and answers, and writing and processing more questions as a result.

1.122This was also true for journalists (and the broader public to whom they were reporting), who were likewise regularly left to try to make sense of incomplete, nonsensical and/or irrelevant 'answers' from the Government and/or the public service.

1.123Unfortunately, at the time of writing, assessments about the current state of Australia’s international work, leadership and reputation in relation to Antarctica (and the exact extent to which it has dwindled under the Albanese Government) represented yet another area of this inquiry's work that had been compromised by the lack of answers to our questions. DFAT was unable to directly answer questions at the public hearing of 29 January 2024 on a range of important subjects. In turn, we have also not yet received answers to a range of questions on notice on a variety of further foreign affairs issues.

1.124To respond to specific questions with indirect, generic, bureaucratic answers—and to continually take them on notice—is not how a Senate committee inquiry process should work. Instead, it is a waste of considerable time and resources.

1.125We therefore remain concerned, in a number of respects, about where the Albanese Government stands on each of the various foreign affairs issues that we aired. Moreover, this concern was actually elevated across the course of the inquiry as a result of the compelling evidence of witnesses such as ProfessorDonald Rothwell.

1.126Professor Rothwell distilled to Senators the manifold risks to Australia's international reputation and influence of a diminution of our country's Antarctic science, research and presence.

1.127At the public hearing of 4 October 2023, Professor Rothwell said that:

… given the unresolved status of Australia's Antarctic sovereignty, the AAD's conduct is critical for the purpose of maintaining Australian sovereignty over the AAT. This is reflected in how the AAD conducts its science programs, annually and seasonally deploys AAD personnel and Australian scientists, oversees the building and maintenance of infrastructure associated with scientific programmes and, finally, ensures that Australia is physically present within and across the AAT (and that) any diminution, disruption or reduction of the AAD science program has the potential to create further uncertainty as to the commitment and engagement of Australia to Antarctica. This in turn has implications for Australian Antarctic sovereignty.[24]

1.128DCCEEW and AAD management also need to consider the point that the obligation for their staff to work on this inquiry was not a trivial matter—and that this should never have been regarded as some sort of extra, unnecessary or bothersome inconvenience. Very serious errors have occurred, and are occurring, in the management of many millions of dollars of taxpayers' money.That the Senate was undertaking a crucially important inquiry into these issues should have been better respected. It should not have been regarded as a nuisance that unnecessarily diverted staff from other work.

1.129Indeed, one of the more noteworthy flashpoints of the inquiry was prompted by Mr Sullivan’s observation at the hearing of 24 April 2024 that the overspend was ''justifiable''.[25]

1.130Senator Bilyk took aim at that response at the time, and we wish to record our disappointment in it now.

1.131There is nothing 'justifiable' about the wastage and mismanagement of tens of millions of dollars of hardworking taxpayers' money, nor about many associated problems in this case.

1.132Clearly, there should be profound contrition—across the board—about this misuse of public money. Unfortunately, though, it would be overstating the case to say that we were—by this point of the inquiry—surprised or shocked by such a comment. This was because it had already become clear that far too much of a laissez faire attitude has set in at the Minister's office (and trickled down to the Department and the Division) in relation to the use of taxpayer money.

1.133From Minister Plibersek (in particular) downwards, many of the key authorities, officials and decisionmakers here need to ask themselves a range of urgent and serious questions about how they have managed to squander the provision of billions of dollars from the Coalition Government between late 2013 and early 2022 and subsequently turn it into large financial shortfalls.

1.134For the Coalition's part, we can only hope that they answer those questions more earnestly, openly and honestly than they have done in responding to most of the questions asked of them throughout the course of this inquiry.

Senator the Hon Jonathon Duniam


Liberal Senator for Tasmania

Senator Ross Cadell


Nationals Senator for New South Wales


[1]Meg Whitfield and Adam Holmes, 'Fears for research after Antarctic Division staff told $25m in spending reductions coming amid budget pressures', ABC News, 29 July 2023 (accessed 8 May 2024).

[2]Senator the Hon Penny Wong, Senate Hansard, 3 August 2023, p. 3328.

[3]Senator the Hon Carol Brown, Senate Hansard, 7 August 2023, p. 3427.

[4]Senator Catryna Bilyk, Senate Hansard, 8 August 2023, p. 3476.

[6]Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, answers to questions on notice, 24 April 2024 (received 30 April 2024).

[7]Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, answers to questions on notice, 23 October 2023 (received 6 November 2023).

[8]Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, answers to written questions on notice, 23 October 2023 (received 6 November 2023).

[9]Henry Belot, 'Australian climate science projects in Antarctica put on ice due to budget cuts', TheGuardian, 1August 2023 (accessed 8 May 2024).

[11]The Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, House of Representatives Hansard, 16 October 2023, p. 7303.

[12]Mr Zac Batchelor, Community and Public Sector Union, Committee Hansard, 4 October 2023, pp.3738.

[14]Gemma Conroy, 'Australia’s Antarctic budget cuts a terrible blow for science’', Nature, 16 August 2023 (accessed 8 May 2024).

[16]Dr Ian Allison AO, Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, Committee Hansard, 1October 2023, p. 1.

[17]Dr Ian Allison AO, Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, Committee Hansard, 1October 2023, p. 7.

[18]Dr Tony Press, private capacity, Committee Hansard, 4 October 2023, p. 32.

[19]Australian Antarctic Division (DCCEEW), October Budget 2022-23, 'Strengthening Australia's leadership in Antarctica' (tabled 24 April 2024).

[20]Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, answers to questions on notice from a public hearing, 24 April 2024 (received 6 May 2024).

[21]Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, answers to questions on notice, 24 April 2024 (received 30 April 2024).

[22]Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, answers to written questions on notice, 21 November 2023 (received 19 December 2023).

[23]All questions on notice and hearing transcripts are available on the inquiry webpage.

[24]Professor Donald Rothwell, private capacity, Committee Hansard, 4 October 2023, p. 33.

[25]Mr Sean Sullivan, Deputy Secretary, Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, Committee Hansard, 24 April 2024, p. 12.