Chapter 6

Chapter 6


6.1        Professor Denzil Miller, a South African-born expert with a long international history of involvement in Antarctic and Southern Ocean affairs, and presently a senior representative of the Government of Tasmania, offered the following perception of Australia's role in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean:

If you really wanted to ask me, in both my previous and present lives where and at which country I looked with envy for Antarctic associations and Southern Ocean activities, there was only one and that was Australia. It is the real deal as far as I am concerned. That goes right across all sorts of things. It goes across environmental stewardship, it goes across diplomatic action, it goes across scientific capability and competence, it goes across governance capability and it goes across political will...

We have to accept that this is an expensive business – Antarctica is an expensive business – but the benefits that we receive as a nation from that business are enormous. It allows us to have a place that is very high and very central in the world. It allows us to look after an area south of us that is free of international discord. It was the first de-nuclearised continent on the planet. It fits in with our basic values. It is our space program. It is about the nation. To me and in my perception, that was something that I was always very envious of and I am now very proud of.[1]

6.2        An acknowledged middle power in many facets of our international engagement, in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic waters Australia is a world leader. Australia engages in the region with a solid historical record, a unique geographical proximity, an expansive sovereignty and a significant international responsibility. The importance of the Southern Ocean to Australia is under-acknowledged but undeniable, and while the costs of our activities there are high, the present and potential benefits are numerous in strategic, diplomatic, environmental and economic terms.

6.3        Australia's leadership is, however, not assured. Growing interest and activity from new nations in Antarctica and its waters is being met by declining Australian investment in personnel, science and operations. The significant role that the Southern Ocean plays in shaping the Australian and global climate requires further understanding, at a time when Australian research capacity in the region is being rapidly lost. Inadequate patrol resources challenge Australian authorities trying to counter an increasing threat from illegal fishing, and the impact of growing tourism on Australia's expansive search and rescue responsibilities. After a significant legal victory against whaling in the Southern Ocean in 2014, Australia's response to the threat of its future resumption is uncertain.

6.4        A hard decision is required. Does Australia remain a principal and influential player on its southern border and maximise the benefits of significant past investment, or is it time for government to let that leadership slide?

6.5        This inquiry has made clear to the committee that the Southern Ocean and Antarctic waters represent a region of significant interest and comparative advantage for Australia. As such, the committee believes that Australia should place importance upon maintaining its leadership in the region, prioritising its interests there, and restoring the resources necessary to support them.

6.6        The completion of the 20 Year Strategic Plan in 2014 was an important and constructive initiative offering a blueprint for the way forward in respect of Antarctica. The government's commitment to move forward with the construction of a new icebreaker vessel also represents a positive and necessary investment. Collaboration between the Commonwealth and Tasmanian governments toward maximising the potential of Hobart as an Antarctic Gateway city is encouraging and needs to continue.

6.7        In this report, the committee has made practical recommendations to ensure the protection and promotion of Australia's key interests in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic waters. The committee is of the view that increased investment is required in a number of areas including scientific research initiatives and the work of the Australian Antarctic Division necessary to support these; in new and more appropriate maritime patrol resources; and in port and maritime infrastructure in Tasmania. The committee has recommended a number of actions which seek to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the various government processes that support Australia's Southern Ocean interests. The report has also focused on opportunities to further exploit the potential for greater international cooperation and resource sharing, in a region where international collaboration is particularly strong.

6.8        The committee commends the excellent work being done by numerous people and bodies in various parts of the Commonwealth government, as well as in the Tasmanian government, the private sector and non-government organisations, to facilitate Australia's multifaceted engagement in the important waters to Australia's south. Much is already being done that largely goes un-noticed, at a time and in an environment of significant challenge. The committee hopes this report will provide a constructive contribution to highlighting the value of that work, and ensuring that it will attract the support it demands to remain a flagship for Australia into the future.


Senator Alex Gallacher

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