Standing up for Canberra

Inquiry into Australia's Antarctic Territory

As deputy chair of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the report from the inquiry into Australia's Antarctic territory. Australia has a long and proud history of involvement in Antarctica, having significantly contributed to shaping the region both through the Antarctic Treaty System and on the ground. 

Australia's continued presence on the continent through science and infrastructure has enabled Australia to contribute to world-class research, to shape Antarctic governance and to protect our sovereignty and national interests in the region.

The Australian Antarctic strategy and 20-year action plan, released in 2014, committed Australia to building and maintaining strong and effective relationships with other nations subject to the Antarctic Treaty System. While the plan outlined an ambitious vision for Australia, what it lacked was that it needed to draw a thread between the strategic importance of Antarctica to Australia's foreign policy and who would take the lead on that body of work.

As my colleague the member for Tangney has noted, the committee's report recommends that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade appoint an Antarctic ambassador to help further Australia's interest in Antarctica internationally. There is a precedent for appointing an ambassador to policy areas of strategic or international importance, or both. We have had ambassadors for the environment. We have had ambassadors in a range of different areas. Australia has appointed a cyber ambassador who works to identify opportunities for practical international cooperation to ensure Australia has a coordinated, consistent and influential voice on international cyber issues. Given these precedents, the Antarctic ambassador's role will be more than symbolic; it will have an important job. It is a strategic appointment, just like the appointment of the cyber ambassador, to promote Australia's Antarctic interests and capabilities on the international stage; it is focused entirely on doing that.

The number of nations showing an interest in Antarctica is increasing. This may lead to pressure in the future to change the established norms in the region to allow access to Antarctic mineral resources, which is currently banned under the treaty. As the political and strategic dynamics of Antarctica change over time, Australia will need strong leadership to ensure the treaty remains the best framework in the region. We need to send a strong message through strong leadership, and that can be demonstrated to our international partners by appointing an Antarctic ambassador. The Antarctic ambassador would be based in the Department of Foreign Affairs, in the same way as the cyberambassador, and lead a team whose focus is on the strategic importance of Antarctica to Australia. Another recommendation in the report is that an office of Antarctic services be created. The Antarctic ambassador, through the office of Antarctic services, would be responsible for promoting Australian scientific research on the international stage and promoting Hobart as Australia's science hub and gateway to Antarctica.

The committee's report also recommended supporting the work of Australia's Antarctic science community by assessing how Australia can retain and further develop its Antarctic science workforce. And they are a phenomenal workforce. Anyone who's had anything to do with the Antarctic Division, or had the wonderful privilege of going down there, has had firsthand experience of the expertise that we have in the science community in Antarctica. Another recommendation of the report was considering how the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre can continue operations beyond June 2019 and implementing a whole-of-government data management strategy.

Throughout the inquiry, and particularly during the visit to Hobart and Antarctica, I was impressed by the dedication and sense of pride that Australia's Antarctic community has for the work they are doing. They are incredibly proud of the work they do in terms of research, particularly on krill, which is absolutely world leading. The work they do on ice cores is also world leading. People come from Europe, America, Africa and Asia to see the work that's being done on krill and ice cores, as well as the other work being done by the Antarctic Division.

I want to thank all the contributors to the committee's inquiry, including those who made submissions, gave evidence at public hearings and provided the committee with private briefings. In particular, I'd like to give my thanks to the staff of the Australian Antarctic Division for their dedication and commitment to the Australian Antarctic Program, and I want to express the committee's appreciation for their assistance with this inquiry.