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Wednesday, 10 March 2010
Page: 2205

Ms PARKE (10:08 AM) —I rise to support the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Amendment Bill 2010, which is designed to ensure that Australia’s legislation conforms to the revised international obligations contained under Annex II to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. The protocol deals with the conservation of Antarctic flora and fauna.

Essentially, this bill imports into Australian domestic law the more stringent protective arrangements contained in the international agreement known as the Madrid protocol. It is worth noting and celebrating the fact that Australia was the principal architect of this agreement, which significantly improves the protection afforded to Antarctic biodiversity. As the minister has indicated in relation to this bill, the important amendments it contains have the effect of adding a new provision that enables the minister to declare invertebrates as specially protected species and to set restrictions on the taking of native invertebrates; strengthening the existing protections for specially protected species; making the existing permit system more robust in order to tightly control any authorised introduction of organisms into the Antarctic; and updating and sharpening the offences that exist to ensure people take even greater precautions against the inadvertent introduction of exotic organisms into the Antarctic. This includes creating several new offences such as the offence of the accidental introduction of micro-organisms, or indeed any organism brought to the Antarctic other than as food.

Australia has long regarded the Antarctic as a region with which we have a special connection and therefore a special relationship and duty of care. There continues to be a strong sense in the community that Australia has a natural stewardship role when it comes to the Antarctic and that we exercise this role both on our own behalf and as a nation acting cooperatively in the best interests of all people and all living things. That is what a universal commitment to biodiversity conservation is all about.

Australia’s modern role as one of the chief protectors of the Antarctic dates back to the middle of last century, by which stage several nations had established permanent research stations on the icy continent. The Antarctic Treaty was developed out of the International Geophysical Year 1958-59 project, a multination research initiative focused on Antarctica and binding together the work of those national research stations. The treaty itself was signed on 1 December 1959 by 12 nations that had been active in that effort: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States and the USSR.

The agreement covers everything south of 60 degrees latitude, and it is one of those documents remarkable now for its clarity, brevity and durability. In six pages and 14 articles the treaty requires, among other things: that Antarctica should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes; that there be a guaranteed freedom to conduct scientific research on a cooperative basis, including the exchange of scientific personnel and the free dissemination of research data; that there be no nuclear explosions or disposal of radioactive waste in Antarctica; that there be an observer and inspection regime to ensure treaty compliance; that parties give advance notice to one another of all expeditions; that signatory nations meet periodically to discuss measures to further the objectives of the treaty; and that parties observe both the stipulated settlement procedure and the established mechanism by which the treaty can be modified.

This agreement, which entered into force on 23 June 1961, can be acceded to by any United Nations member state, and it currently has 47 signatories. Its potency as an international instrument is demonstrated by the nearly 40 years of cooperative consensus decision making that have evolved from the treaty and through the work undertaken in the annual Antarctic Treaty consultative meetings. From both the treaty and this meeting process have flowed a range of further agreements and a set of related organisations, which together are referred to as the Antarctic Treaty System. Those subsidiary agreements themselves include the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora, adopted in 1964 to protect native animals and plants, to restrict the taking of birds and seals by the application of a permit system and to prevent the introduction of non-indigenous organisms; the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, an agreement which establishes conservation standards for any hunting of seals, which thankfully did not resume in the 20th century and does not occur there now; and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, adopted in 1980 in response to the unregulated fishing of krill, a key species within the Antarctic marine food chain.

Importantly, this convention relied upon an ecosystem approach to rightly consider the Southern Ocean as a biosphere, consisting of an integrated set of species and marine environment conditions. This agreement continues to govern the sustainable fishing of wholly marine species in the Southern Ocean. The last component of the treaty system is the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. This was adopted in 1991 to ensure that the full range of Antarctic protections was brought together in a consolidated, comprehensive and legally binding form. The protocol designates the Antarctic as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. It prohibits mining, it requires that all proposed activities be subject to prior assessment for their environmental impacts and it requires that contingency plans for use in responding to environmental emergencies be developed. It is in the annexes to this protocol to the original Antarctic Treaty that detailed provisions for the protection and conservation of the Antarctic are contained. Annex II updates the rules specific to the protection of flora and fauna, and it is from annex II that the amendments in this bill derive their substance.

All that taken together is probably not the most fascinating narrative ever heard in this place, but such is the painstaking form and plain substance of human agreement at the international level. It is important stuff. It may not sing off the page, but agreements like the Antarctic Treaty constitute the black-and-white, multilateral commitment to clear and enforceable conservation standards. You would be hard pressed to find a better method and means of achieving international observance of agreed environmental management and preservation practices. This bill and these amendments are therefore a further important instalment of Australia’s participation in a very successful protection of the continent of Antarctica and of the Antarctic region as a whole. It is a conservation system that we have been a part of since the beginning and in which we have been an active and effective advocate. I commend the Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts and his department for their excellent work in advancing the cause of Antarctic environmental protection.

In this context a number of achievements from the reported year 2008-09 are worth noting—namely, the fact that through the International Polar Year cooperative research structure Australian scientists participated in 72 of the 228 endorsed research projects; that as the current conveners of three of the four working groups established by the advisory committee on the conservation of albatrosses and petrels, the department continued the work to address taxonomy issues and the gathering of seabird data in relation to population status and trends; that Australia secured an update to the Antarctic protected area management plans for Mawson’s Huts; and, finally and most significantly in relation to this debate, that it was at the April 2009 annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting that, in addition to tabling eight working papers and four information papers, Australia led and saw the resolution of the revision of Annex II to the Madrid protocol, which is the basis for the enhanced flora and fauna protections contained in this bill. It was the end of an eight-year process and it was an achievement that we should all recognise and celebrate.

There is no doubt that we are living in a time when the pressure of human life on the environment that sustains us is taking a serious toll on the natural resources and biodiversity of planet earth. The growing human population is matched by an increasing draw on resources per head of population, and this inevitably spells danger for forests, for wetlands and for coastal and marine environments, and so it puts at risk all life that depends on those environmental systems. This includes human life.

In recent decades the global community has come to focus more keenly on those things that we cannot help but share—the atmosphere, the oceans, the climate—as our growth as a species reaches a point where we test the limits of those commonly shared environmental conditions. As we particularly test the capacity of our oceans, our atmosphere and our climate to absorb our demands and our impact without detrimental consequence for life on earth, human and non-human alike, we confront the need to overcome an attitude which we have heard expressed in this place, an attitude that says we should not compromise our own consumption or seek to lessen our own impact unless other nations do so first. It is a recipe for inaction; it is not a recipe for the status quo because there is no status quo. There is only a steepening decline in the quality of our environment and in the biodiversity of our planet. It is a recipe for disaster.

I have said before that I believe we as a civilisation are moving to an era that will be characterised by how we transcend the limitations inherent in a system defined by the autonomy and primacy of the nation-state and by the rising and falling hegemonic balance between so-called superpower groups. It may be that coming to regard one’s own time as the tipping point or knife edge of some critical point in human history is a conceit that every generation tends to form. Yet I think it can be said without exaggeration that we are living in a period in which citizens and their governments will need to find the means to further overcome the current intrinsic resistance to global cooperation. It is one thing to say that multilateral institutions and processes are imperfect, a proposition nobody would dispute; it is another thing to say that the improvement of these institutions and processes is unnecessary and that our engagement and the effort to improve them to give them strength is unimportant.

Next year in June the Antarctic Treaty will mark its 40th birthday. In the knowledge that international agreements are fragile things, the treaty allowed at the outset for any party to instigate a review of the agreement at the end of 30 years. Yet in 1991, rather than revising or weakening the treaty as it was, the parties instead reaffirmed the strength and necessity of the agreement by adopting a declaration that recorded the shared intention to maintain and further develop the operation of the Antarctic Treaty System.

Few agreements have functioned as consistently well as this treaty in terms of promoting its objectives and presenting a model of this kind of multilateral cooperation. It has been noted by others that the Antarctic Treaty System represents one of the most effective sets of international agreements in operation today. Thanks to this system of cooperation, Antarctic research and monitoring has allowed the international scientific community to see and anticipate certain key atmospheric and climate trends. The ozone layer deterioration is an example, and our response to that problem would not have been as timely and effective without that science. Thanks to this system of conservation, Antarctica, one of the seven continents on earth, remains a fundamentally pristine natural environment and an environment free from both military hardware and territorial conflict. This bill is a relatively small and incremental piece of the Antarctic conservation mosaic, yet with its passage, which I strongly endorse, we will put in place another well-calibrated set of provisions to protect this crucial and beautiful part of the planet.

Before I finish, I would like to pay tribute to Phillip Garth Law, a man known as ‘Mr Antarctica’, who died on 28 February 2010 in his ninety-eighth year. As described in the obituary in today’s Canberra Times, Mr Law was:

… lecturing in physics at Melbourne University in 1947 [when he] became aware that the Australian Government, egged on by Sir Douglas Mawson, had established the Australian National Antarctic Research Exhibition to build meteorological and scientific stations on Heard and Macquarie islands in the sub-Antarctic and to reconnoitre the site for a permanent station on the Antarctic mainland.

The government was looking for a chief scientific officer. He instinctively grasped that this mix of high adventure and science was tailor made for him.

By 1949 [Phillip Law] became the acting officer in charge of the Antarctic Division … and directed its operations for the next 17 years, personally leading 28 voyages to Antarctica during which he … chose the sites and established bases at Mawson, David and Casey on … ice-free locations.

Astonishingly, he also:

… used the annual resupply voyages (despite being chronically seasick on every voyage) to explore 5000km of unknown coastline, and a million square kilometres of Greater Antarctica.

Mr Law used to say that he was ‘one of the last people in the world who’s had the joy of new exploration’.

Phil[lip] Law took a great interest in the living conditions of [people] on the Antarctic stations … [ensuring] there was a comprehensive library of … literature and popular novels, a gramophone and … records … [and] a formal dinner held every Sunday night [with wine].

He never stopped pushing the Australian government to properly resource Antarctic programs. He also wrote a number of books, including Antarctic Odyssey.

Phillip Law remained interested in the Antarctic all of his life. His wife, Nel, who died in 1990, was a teacher, artist and writer. She was the first Australian woman to set foot on Antarctica when Mr Law took her, amid some controversy, in 1961 and she took the opportunity to do some paintings while down there. Phillip Law was decorated for his life’s work with a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1961, the Polar Medal in 1969, Officer of the Order of Australia in 1975 and Companion of the Order of Australia in 1995. He said about Antarctica:

I think anyone who’s been to Antarctica becomes absolutely obsessed with the beauty and grandeur and magnitude of it all … and those rare moments of discovery when I landed on quite unknown shores and raised the Australian flag, and said ‘Here we are for the first time.’

I am grateful to the Canberra Times for providing this very lovely story about Mr Law. Australia and indeed the world owe a great deal to Phillip Law and his love of the Antarctic. He certainly deserves the title ‘Mr Antarctica’.