Essay

Postcards from the frontline

A traverse across Australia’s Antarctic policy

POLICY DEVELOPMENT CAN be an arcane process, so I’ll begin this exploration of Australian Antarctic policy on a lighter note.

After the 2013 election I was commissioned by the Australian Govern­ment to prepare a report on Australia’s Antarctic strategic interests. In October 2014 Greg Hunt, the then Minister for the Environment, was in Hobart to publicly release that report, Australia’s 20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan. In the heat (or perhaps it was the excitement?) of the moment, Hunt departed from his prepared notes to discuss the protection of walruses. It was one of those moments when the only thing you do is to try to keep a straight face. Tasmanian journalist Andrew Darby – a specialist in Antarctic affairs and conservation – was somewhere in my line of sight; I made sure I made no eye contact.

After the media scrum, interviews and photo ops, someone from Hunt’s office contacted me to ask for advice on how to rectify the gaff. My advice was to bury it, or to say it had been an unfortunate mistake if anyone raised it. I raise this now merely to point out that the road to sound policy development is long and winding: it’s sometimes unpredictable, sometimes exasperating and sometimes amusing – but hopefully the route taken is an ultimately successful one.

My report, to be honest, was not really a strategy. It was an assessment of the state of Australia’s Antarctic efforts, and an evaluation of how well Australia was upholding and protecting its Antarctic interests. Three years later, in 2017, the government responded to my assessment by publishing the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan.

AS A CLAIMANT to 42 per cent of Antarctica since 1933, and one of the negotiators and original signatories of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, Australia has a long and vested interest in the seventh continent and its region. And if Douglas Mawson is the best known of Australia’s early Antarctic explorers thanks to the epic Australasian Antarctic Expedition that took place between 1911 and 1914, Australian scientists and explorers had been visiting the Antarctic since the late 1800s. Louis Bernacchi, a Tasmanian physicist and astronomer, had joined Carsten Borchgrevink’s 1898–1900 Southern Cross Expedition. This was the first British entry in the ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic exploration, and it gave Bernacchi the distinction of becoming the first Australian to expedition on the Antarctic continent.

Mawson had joined Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition (1907–09) along with fellow Australian geologist Edgeworth David. Mawson was later asked to be part of Scott’s fateful quest for the South Pole (1910–13) but declined to pursue his own Antarctic ambitions. Mawson’s 1911 Antarctic expedition was centred on exploration and science, but he also had one eye on claiming Antarctica for the Crown, although this goal was not officially sanctioned.

Unlike the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, Mawson was on an explicit quest for territory when he returned to the Antarctic on the British Australian and New Zealand Research Expedition (BANZARE) more than a decade later, between 1929 and 1931. One task of the BANZARE expedition was overtly geopolitical: the expedition sought claim to Antarctic territory. Expeditioners mapped parts of the coast from their ship and used a small aeroplane to make exploratory flights along the coast. Five proclamations of British sovereignty were made along the route of the expedition, including one at Cape Denison, the ‘home of the blizzard’, where Mawson had based the Australasian Antarctic Expedition in 1911. These explorations and proclamations contributed significantly to the 1933 transfer from the United Kingdom to Australia of what is now the Australian Antarctic Territory – and the official proclamation of the Australian Antarctic Territory by Australia in 1936.

In 1939 Australia marked this acquisition with publication of a large and detailed map of Antarctica and an accompanying booklet. This was the first comprehensive map of the continent and it included a detailed inset representing the coast of Australia’s territory. The map also featured France’s Adélie Land, New Zealand’s Ross Dependency and the UK’s Falkland Islands territory. In the lead-­up to the outbreak of World War II, Norway – under some diplomatic pressure from the UK and as a pre-­emption of Germany’s Antarctic aspirations – also proclaimed their Antarctic territory, Queen Maud Land, in 1939. This flurry of proclamations provoked Chile and Argentina to assert their own Antarctic claims – these do not appear on Australia’s 1939 map.

Mawson was keenly focused on the Antarctic south of Australia. He was convinced, correctly, that the Antarctic made a significant contribution to Australian weather, that it was an important place for geophysical science research and that there was potential for Australia to benefit from its minerals. On the political front, Richard Casey – later to become Australian Minister for External Affairs – held an abiding interest in Antarctica and in the need for Australia to possess or control Antarctic territory. He was an Australian diplomat at Whitehall when the Svalbard Treaty came into force in 1925. That treaty granted Norway sovereignty over the Svalbard archipelago, resolved all mining claims and precluded their use in any future ‘warlike activities’. Elected to the Australian Parliament as a member of the United Australia Party in 1931, Casey would later be extremely influential in the negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty.

If the outbreak of World War II dampened Antarctic ambitions, Mawson was again actively lobbying for Australia to assert its Antarctic interests after the end of the war and to establish an Antarctic presence. This lobbying saw the Chifley government establish the first Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition in 1947, launching an expedition to Heard Island in the southern Indian Ocean (then a territory of the UK) that year and an expedition to Macquarie Island in 1948. The ultimate aim, though, was to establish a base on the Antarctic continent. To oversee these aspirations, Phillip Law was appointed the first director of the Antarctic Division of the Ministry of External Affairs in 1949 – a position he held for the next seventeen years.

Up to this point Australia’s Antarctic ambitions had been set around territorial acquisition and affirmation that Australia should secure its rights in this continent to its south – and clearly demonstrate those rights by its presence, exploration and administration. Some of Australia’s actions were taken pre-­emptively in as much as they were made to ‘ward off’ the ambitions of others. But with the intervention of the Cold War, global events would end up shaping Australia’s Antarctic policy from this time on.

 

CONTEMPORARY AUSTRALIAN ANTARCTIC policy has been shaped by the historical-­legal legacy of pre-­World War II Australian exploration, by subsequent legislation and by the advent of the Antarctic Treaty. After World War II, Cold War competition between the USSR and the US began to spill into the Antarctic. In 1946 the US embarked on Operation Highjump – officially known as the US Navy Antarctic Developments Program – which involved 4,700 personnel, thirteen ships and thirty-­three aircraft. The brainchild of retired Rear Admiral Richard E Byrd and led by Rear Admiral Ethan Erik Larson, Operation Highjump was undertaken in part to consolidate grounds for subsequent US sovereignty to as much of Antarctica as feasible. The US has never claimed sovereignty to any of the Antarctic continent, but they still maintain that the US has the basis of a claim.

The USSR’s historical connections to the Antarctic date back to Fabian Bellingshausen’s First Russian Antarctic Expedition of 1819–1821, which circumnavigated the continent. The purpose of this expedition was to verify the existence of a southern continent. Two contemporary Russian Antarctic stations are named after the vessels of this expedition, Mirny and Vostok. In the late 1940s the USSR was whaling extensively in Antarctic waters, and in 1956 the Mirny Research Station was established in East Antarctica in the Australian Antarctic Territory.

As is discussed elsewhere in this edition, Cold War geopolitics were long interwoven with issues of Antarctic sovereignty. Post-­World War II, seven countries had Antarctic claims – Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the UK. The claims of Argentina, Chile and the UK overlapped in the Antarctic Peninsular region and each disputed the others’ legitimacy, while both the USSR and the US reserved rights to make Antarctic claims. A few attempts to solve this ‘Antarctic problem’ had been made in the postwar period, but each initiative had failed. The breakthrough came as a result of the International Geophysical Year of 1957–58, an international scientific collaboration focusing on understanding the geophysical properties of the polar regions in a global effort to learn more about the Earth system through observations in meteorology, oceanography, seismology, physics and glaciology. This program was conducted over the Arctic summer and through to the end of the Antarctic summer so that scientific observations would cover both poles. Twelve nations participated in the Antarctic component: Argentina, Australia, Chile, Belgium, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the UK, the US and the USSR. These twelve countries were subsequently invited to Washington by President Eisenhower in May 1958 to negotiate a solution to the Antarctic problem, and it was this meeting that led to those twelve countries signing the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. Australia was, initially, a reluctant and sceptical participant in these talks.

The Antarctic Treaty was negotiated between May 1958 and June 1959, an impressively short period of time given formidable geopolitical issues that needed to be addressed: the status of sovereign claims and Cold War competition. The treaty is notably short, only sixteen articles, but it achieved agreement on a far-reaching set of matters, including non-­militarisation, competing claims for sovereignty and an insistence on co-­operation through open-­ended inspection of all bases and facilities in Antarctica by any Antarctic Treaty party. Given the beginning of the nuclear arms race and rising superpower tensions, it is remarkable that agreement was reached on laws that cover an entire continent and 7 per cent of the globe, and the treaty has shaped Australian Antarctic policy to this very day.

It is worthwhile to reflect on the words of Robert Menzies in his opening address to the first Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Canberra on 10 July 1961:

Today there are twelve nations represented here – four of them…‘nuclear powers’. This, I think, is tremendously significant because the treaty itself – and the whole spirit in which it was conceived – have concentrated round three major principles which we would do well to bear in mind. The first of these is that the region is not to be regarded as a region in which preparations for war or conflict can be engaged in. It would not, perhaps, be grammatically accurate to say that it is demilitarised, because it has never been militarised; but it is to be non-­militarised…
The second thing about it is the emphasis that it places upon co-­operation… [H]ere in the Antarctic, we are going to have, more and more as a result of this association between us, co-­operation in scientific research…for the benefit of mankind all over the world.
The third thing is that under the treaty we have agreed to set aside the argument about territorial claims. Nobody abandons his own. We have made territorial claims in the Antarctic – quite expansive ones. I dare say that there are nations represented here today who would not agree with some of our claims… [W]hen this Treaty was being negotiated it was agreed not to abandon claims but to put on one side the argument about them.

The language of the day aside, Menzies’ speech contains the key elements of Australia’s Antarctic strategy and policy framework that persist today – the goals of keeping Antarctica non-­militarised and maintaining Antarctica as a place of peace and science. His speech also goes to the heart of how Australia views its Antarctic sovereignty to this very day: the treaty does not cede sovereignty, nor even suspend it. It merely sets aside arguments on territorial status.

 

AT THE TIME I started working on my 2014 Antarctic report to the Australian Government, Australia’s Antarctic efforts were noble and bold but were being run on the smell of an oily rag. Since the late 1990s the impact of budget-­imposed ‘efficiency dividends’ – annual attrition of baseline funding – had eroded the ability of the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) to broaden its scientific research efforts in Antarctica, or even maintain efforts in key areas such as marine science. Australia’s Antarctic diplomatic capacity was also waning.

But some very important decisions were made in the 2000s. John Howard’s announcement in September 2005 that Australia would establish an intercontinental airlink between Hobart and Antarctica was the culmination of seven years of planning and feasibility studies. The link would be to a runway of groomed glacial ice eighty kilometres inland from Australia’s Casey Station.

Robert Hill, the first Minister for the Environment in the Howard government, had directed the AAD to establish an Australia–Antarctica airlink. Early thinking was very conventional: to get ski-­equipped Hercules C-­130s to fly the route. The end result, still the core of Australia’s intercontinental Antarctic airlink, was quite radical: using a long-­range Airbus A319, which lands conventionally on wheels on the ice.

Getting to Howard’s 2005 announcement also involved the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council. The council was to be given a presentation on the importance of Australian Antarctic science, and a committee was established to craft the presentation. John Zillman, former head of the Bureau of Meteorology and a council member, was chairing this group and there had been some skirmishes about what was to go into the presentation. A few of us thought that a dry presentation of important Antarctic science and associated data was not what was needed to focus Cabinet ministers on funding Antarctic science. We thought it important to root the presentation in the history of Australia’s Antarctic endeavours – and we made sure Douglas Mawson’s image made an early appearance.

But policy development can also be theatre.

Michael Stoddart, then chief scientist of the AAD, had organised for ice from an ice core more than 80,000 years old to be taken to Canberra and stored in deep-­freeze facilities at ANU before being brought to the catering area of the Parliament House Cabinet Room on the day of the presentation. The Antarctic presentation was scheduled straight after the mid-­morning break. While the Cabinet Room was empty, Michael and others put fresh glasses of water around the Cabinet table. Just before the presentation was to begin, a piece of the ancient ice was placed in each glass. Stoddart asked those sitting around the table to sniff the air above the glass so that they could sample the cleanest air they had ever breathed – the air that had been trapped in bubbles in the ice core and was now being released as it melted. Warren Truss was visibly impressed with this, passing his glass back to staff sitting behind him for them to breathe it in. John Howard was very focused on the presentation, and at one point turned to then Environment Minister Ian Campbell and said something to him quietly.

I wrote in my notebook ‘We’ve got the money’ – funding for the Antarctic air transport proposal.

 

IN APRIL 2017 Minister Greg Hunt faced assembled officials, invitees and media again to launch the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan. There was no mention of the walrus this time – instead he was publicly exposing Australia’s hitherto almost completely hidden ‘Antarctic strategic interests’. This strategy and action plan had been agreed by Cabinet, including endorsement of the strategic interests and their public release. Then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull signed the foreword to the strategy and announced new funding for Antarctic operations, modernisation of infrastructure, inland traverse capabilities and the acquisition of a new ‘world-­class icebreaker’ that would replace the ageing Aurora Australis.

But it was this public display of the strategic interests that carried the most important historical and geopolitical weight. Here was Australia advertising openly the reasons it engages in Antarctic affairs and the framework it uses for Antarctic policy-­making.

Australia’s Antarctic national interests were laid out as maintaining Antarctica’s freedom from strategic and/or political confrontation; preserving our sovereignty over the Australian Antarctic Territory, including sovereign rights over adjacent offshore areas; supporting a strong and effective Antarctic Treaty System; conducting world-­class scientific research; protecting the Antarctic environment with regard to its special qualities and their impacts on our region; a commitment to being informed about and able to influence developments in a region geographically proximate to Australia; and a commitment to foster economic opportunities arising from Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, consistent with our Antarctic Treaty System obligations – including the ban on mining and oil drilling.

Framed by the history of Antarctic discovery, exploration and sovereignty, and shaped through the negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty and the evolution of that treaty system, this statement hinges on regional security, Australian sovereignty to the Australian Antarctic Territory and support for, and maintenance of, the agreed international arrangements for governance of the Antarctic region. Science, the ‘currency of influence’ in this part of the world, environmental protection and ‘economic opportunities’ (without mining and oil drilling) all get a guernsey – but the strategic core is in the first three listed priorities.

 

THE COMMITMENT TO funding a replacement for Aurora Australis was necessary. That vessel, commissioned in 1989, was reaching the point where the costs of ongoing maintenance would soon become prohibitive. What was surprising was the agreement by Cabinet to adopt a ‘gold standard’ for the new icebreaker rather than ‘options B, C or D’ that were likely contained in the Cabinet papers. Nuyina, as it would later be named, is 160 metres long (Aurora Australis is ninety-­four metres) and can break 1.65-­metre-­thick ice at three knots – way beyond the ability of its predecessor – and its cargo capacity far exceeds Aurora’s too.

But this ship was commissioned for much more than slogging backwards and forwards from Hobart to Antarctica delivering cargo and people. Its science capabilities put it at the apex of polar research vessels, with marine and atmospheric science capabilities Australia has not had before. Its ninety-­day at-­sea endurance also gives it the ability to mount large research campaigns across all of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean region. Nuyina entered active Antarctic service in the austral summer of 2021.

It’s a common topic of discussion among current and former bureaucrats that modern-­day governments are quite happy to spend money on physical capital and infrastructure but often reluctant to invest in the people needed to run these shiny new objects. And in the past decade, despite significant expenditure on Antarctic capability and infrastructure, the number of staff engaged to run Australia’s Antarctic program has steadily declined. External to the public service, funding for Antarctic science in universities and some publicly funded research organisations was maintained in some areas but was steadily eroding in other areas, leading to exaggerated speculation that soon there wouldn’t be enough people to operate these ‘new toys’. Enter ‘Scott of the Antarctic’.

This headline ran on the front page of the Hobart Mercury on 22 February 2022. Then Prime Minister Scott Morrison and then Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley were in Tasmania to announce significant new investment in Australia’s Antarctic program. The media release declared that the Morrison government was sending ‘a clear international signal of Australia’s world-­leading Antarctic leadership with an $804.4 million investment over the next ten years to strengthen our strategic and scientific capabilities in the region’.

This was indeed new money – not the recycling of old commitments but new investments, repairing some of the past expenditure potholes and foreshadowing new capabilities in science, people, logistics and technology. Given that the annual operational budget of the AAD over the past few years had been around $133 million per annum, an additional $800 million over ten years was a significant shift.

The media release, signed off by Morrison, Ley and then Foreign Minister Marise Payne, flagged that the $800 million would be used across a range of existing and new technologies, science programs, logistics and diplomacy, including support for Australia’s inland traverse capability, critical charting activities, mobile stations, environmental protection and other core activities; increased aerial and inland capability, including drone fleets; four new medium-­lift helicopters to access parts of the continent we could never previously reach; support for marine science in the Southern Ocean and a new state-­of-­the-­art krill aquarium in Hobart; and support for research focused on Antarctic ice-­sheet science to build global understanding of climate-­change impacts – improving our ability to support Pacific partners to monitor information about climate and oceans, including sea-level rise.

The previous November, Sussan Ley had announced that the government would abandon the idea of a year-­round, 3.5-­kilometre runway in the Vestfold Hills near Australia’s Davis Station. Ley said the decision had been made after ‘careful consideration of the environmental impact, economic investment and broader national interest considerations’ that such a huge project, in an ecologically sensitive area of Antarctica, would entail. Consideration of year-­round aviation access had been underway for a few years and was foreshadowed in the 2017 release of the Antarctic strategy and action plan.

Construction of the runway had not yet been approved on environmental grounds, nor funded, but it had been criticised by some Antarctic scientists as the construction phase was perceived to tie up resources and limit opportunities for research. It was also criticised on environmental grounds – its location was in a relatively pristine and rare Antarctic environment. Opposition to the runway did not reach the heights of the 1980s campaign against the French runway at Dumont d’Urville, but approval had not yet been given by Australia.

Abandoning the Davis runway was seen by some observers of Antarctic geopolitics as Australia ‘downgrading’ its Antarctic commitment, so it was no coincidence that Ley’s announcement tied the killing off of the runway to future ‘significant announcements on Australia’s enhanced capability’. Those announcements were the ones contained in the February 2022 funding package.

It’s unlikely that the Davis runway will be resurrected by a future Australian government. On costs alone it is formidable – and a future proposal would still require both international environmental assessment through the Antarctic Treaty’s Environmental Protocol as well as through domestic environmental legislation. And so the ‘plan B’ for the abandoned runway is foreshadowed in the February 2022 announcement: money for ‘investigations into modern intracontinental aeroplanes’.

Through all of this, the re-­basing of funding to the AAD and the investments announced for future research infrastructure are the most significant boost to Australia’s Antarctic programs in decades.

 

THERE HAS BEEN a significant increase in academic and media commentary about the future of Antarctica and of the Antarctic Treaty System across the last decade. This commentary has been partly spurred on by views on the rise of China and speculation on its Antarctic motives – often in the context of Australian national security. It is clear that China sees itself as a significant global player and an important player in the Antarctic region. China is now displaying this self-­view by increasingly asserting its own, often solitary, interpretations of important Antarctic Treaty System issues. Russia is playing the same game: using singular legal interpretations of Antarctic law or of past-­agreed decisions and practices to halt or slow down decision-­making.

While many commentators have focused on the potential triggering of review provisions of the Antarctic Treaty’s Environmental Protocol in 2048, what is probably much more important now is the impact of individual countries’ behaviours on the way the Antarctic Treaty System will work and function into the future. An erosion of norms, values and practices is an insidious undermining of international law and governance.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine itself will send shock waves into the Antarctic Treaty System. Both Russia and Ukraine are signatories to the treaty and both have Antarctic facilities. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, their expeditioners in Antarctica faced a very bleak time: their Antarctic program ran out of hard currency and could not pay the bills for a supply vessel that had been detained in Cape Town. Long-­time Antarctic policy expert Andrew Jackson recalls that some Russian research stations ran very low on food and other essential supplies before their ship was released and a mid-­winter resupply undertaken.

Shockwaves from the recent invasion, though, will play out on the broader Antarctic geopolitical canvas. In recent years, consensus decision-­making – the modus operandi of the Antarctic Treaty System – has struggled with objections from both Russia and China against progress on already agreed issues such as marine protected areas and precautionary catch limits for some Antarctic fisheries. The stalling of progress by withdrawal of consensus is not new – indeed the Soviet Union used that same playing card in Antarctic fisheries negotiations in the 1980s. But it is likely that the tacit alliances between China and Russia on a range of global issues, including the invasion of Ukraine and that direct and bloody conflict itself, will spill over into the Antarctic Treaty System in unexpected ways.

In this environment, investment in diplomacy is just as critical for Australia as investment in science. While science is the currency of influence in Antarctica, security was built on and by diplomacy. Any emerging or future Antarctic conflict will have to be resolved by diplomatic means.

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