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Tuesday, 28 February 2012
Page: 2225


WYATT ROY (Longman) (21:25): I rise to speak on the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Amendment Bill 2011. I begin by saying I might be somewhat more reserved than the member for Hughes in my comments. Australia has a long and intimate history with Antarctica. It was before Australia's Federation, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that Australia pioneered exploration and research into Antarctica. It was the geographical and scientific research of Australian scientists in particular which has revealed so much about this mysterious and interesting continent, helping to inform international environmental guidelines. Without the expeditions and research of Australian scientists we would not have the same understanding of the unique environment that is Antarctica. To share with the House just one example, the work of Australian scientist Douglas Mawson was instrumental in revealing biological, meteorological and geological information about Antarctica, including the location of the south magnetic pole. Douglas Mawson's Australian Antarctic expedition in 1911 ventured into areas of Antarctica which were at the time yet to be visited and gathered data which has ultimately informed actions to protect this unique and precious region.

It is from humble early beginnings that Australia's legacy with Antarctica has grown. As a nation, we have been instrumental in developing protocols to protect Antarctica from human impacts and in promoting the Antarctic environment. It is known and respected internationally that Australia has a strong record on groundbreaking environmental work in Antarctica, and it was this side of the House who first acknowledged the environmental and cultural significance of Antarctica, resulting since in over 70 years of bipartisan support.

It was Lord Richard Casey, a member of Sir Robert Menzies' government and Minister for External Affairs, who first promoted scientific research to help Australia learn more about the Antarctic environment, and helped make the Antarctic Treaty possible. Lord Casey's extensive international negotiations with 11 countries, including Argentina, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, formed the groundwork that resulted in the signing of the Antarctic Treaty. Lord Casey was also instrumental in gaining the support of what was at the time the Soviet Union, in order to give the Antarctic Treaty the essential international credibility and authority that it has today. The foundation work of Lord Casey was further pursued at the time by Prime Minister Menzies at the inaugural Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Canberra in 1961.

It was this side of the House that took these important first moves which have resulted in ongoing bipartisan support for the Antarctic Treaty, including other significant moments such as the signing of the Madrid protocol in 1991, and more recently the work of former Liberal Senator Robert Hill, who, in an attempt to support and understand ongoing trade and research, personally ventured to Antarctica twice during his time as minister.

Australia's international track record on Antarctica is clear for all others to see. As a country we have been at the forefront of decisions to cease mining activity on Antarctica and preserve the environment in the Antarctic region. It makes sense, then, that as a country we put in place measures that have been agreed to at an international level that will continue to promote good safety and environmental guidelines for the future of the Antarctic region.

These are the very things this bill seeks to redress. This bill adopts these measures which have been agreed to by the parties to the Antarctic Treaty. This bill will give effect to Australia's international obligations set out under the Madrid protocol and the Antarctic Treaty, including specific changes agreed to during the international Antarctic Treaty consultative meetings in 2004, 2005 and 2009. The first measure that this bill addresses is ensuring responsibility for environmental emergencies. The adoption of annex 6 to the protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which has informed this measure in the bill, is the most significant addition to the Antarctic Treaty since it was first signed in 1959. Consequently, it is appropriate that it be reflected and given proper authority under this bill. Environmental emergencies may take the form of, for example, oil spills or disease introduction and can pose real and dangerous threats to the future of our Antarctic environment. Under this measure, all government and non-government bodies operating in the Antarctic, whether they are conducting scientific research, tourism, shipping and transportation or logistical support, will be required to prepare detailed plans to manage and reduce the risk of environmental emergencies. Under this requirement, it will be mandatory for these operators to prepare plans which have detailed contingency measures and responses to environmental emergencies. Operators will be obligated to present their management strategies for approval before they can operate in the Antarctic region.

This bill will allow for the minister to grant safety and environmental approvals for operators, and these measures will hold operators legally accountable for implementing contingency plans. This should cause operators in this region to take their personal responsibilities very seriously. Of course it is vital that, as Australians, we are taking measures to protect Antarctica against environmental emergencies. Over the past couple of years we have seen examples splashed across the media both domestically and abroad of the devastating impacts of environmental emergencies and the wide-reaching consequences they can have on natural habitats.

We have seen the Shen Neng 1 run aground on the Great Barrier Reef, and we have seen a catastrophic oil spill in my own backyard in Moreton Bay. These examples spell out the urgency of putting into place appropriate precautions to prevent environmental emergencies. The cost to communities and governments in these two cases were extensive, and in both these cases the operators responsible were not the ones on the ground after the incident who were working to minimise the damage to the environment. This bill holds any operator that causes an environmental emergency responsible for their actions. This bill holds operators accountable for cleaning up environmental emergencies and, as a contingency, it enables third parties to claim compensation from the polluter if the third parties themselves have taken action in the polluter's stead to clean up after an environmental emergency.

Antarctica is a treasure, and, as a country with a 42 per cent stake in its territory, we cannot afford to be complacent in ensuring the protection of its environment. As we are all aware, Antarctica is unique—it cannot be replaced or replicated anywhere else. It is vital that we take our part in protecting it for future generations by respecting this pristine environment.

The second measure that this bill addresses is the requirement of non-government operators to make contingency plans for health, safety, search and rescue—including insurance coverage—as well as medical care and emergency evacuations. This measure is extremely important in light of the dangers associated with operations in this region, which is undeniably isolated and inhospitable. Between 2007 and 2010 there were seven serious incidents involving tourist vessels in the Antarctic region requiring evacuations and rescues. Most of these situations involved vessels running aground in the treacherous conditions that the Antarctic region is renowned for, and all resulted in emergency evacuations. Additionally, in recent years there have been mishaps which have involved private Australian adventurers and drawn-out and complicated search and rescue missions.

Having grown up around family and friends involved in ocean racing and sailing, in the course of which records have been set in Antarctica, I can personally attest to the importance of these measures. The costs incurred in response to all of these emergencies are significant and cannot be dismissed. It is only responsible to expect that organisations and individuals who venture into this region take sufficient precautions to prevent emergencies and act in a way that is respectful of the resources which would be necessary to respond to emergency situations they may find themselves in. Not only do these emergencies incur a financial cost; they also incur a human cost and a resource cost. All rescue missions present a possible compromise to rescue equipment and unplanned diversions of limited available equipment in the region. This can potentially disrupt national Antarctic programs, including important scientific research. Additionally, each rescue mission can be a life-threatening situation for the rescuers. These costs, along with the financial costs, need to be the responsibility of the operators, and should be minimised with appropriate contingency planning.

The third measure that this bill seeks to address is a requirement to manage the number of tourists disembarking in the region. This measure is an important means to regulate and protect both safety and the environment. The measure prevents tourist vessels that are carrying more than 500 passengers from making landings, and for smaller vessels it restricts the number passengers able to disembark from a vessel at any one time.

Operators will be required to coordinate with their counterparts to ensure that only one operator has tourists disembark at any point. In addition to these limits on disembarking, this measure imposes a minimum passenger-to-guide ratio to limit dangers for tourists and to ensure that safety is paramount. As with any tourist activity, operators are responsible for ensuring the safety of their participants. Antarctica is undeniably dangerous and unpredictable. Without appropriate safety attire it is uninhabitable. With this in mind, limiting the number of tourists in any one area at any time is a very fitting measure that forcibly manages the safety of tourists in a highly challenging environment. Previous expeditions have demonstrated that even the most experienced and prepared teams can run into danger. This measure will minimise risks as much as possible for those disembarking onto the land.

Not only is the safety of tourists a priority but so is the safety of this environment. As I mentioned earlier, it is highly critical that we get this right. As history has shown us, human activity has the potential to undermine an environment. For an environment such as this, with so much yet to be learned and gained from scientific research, we cannot afford for human impact to deteriorate the quality of this pristine region. Researchers have a justified fear of introducing disease and causing degradation. By limiting the number of tourists at any one time, there is a better ability to prevent disease outbreak and a higher chance of containing an outbreak if one were to occur.

As Australians, we have a significant responsibility to uphold in Antarctica. Already the Australian Antarctic Division has undertaken an extensive consultation process with stakeholders regarding the measures proposed in this bill. We know that many Australian tourism operators are largely meeting the requirements of these measures voluntarily and, by extension, generally supportive of the nature of this bill. As signatories to the Antarctic Treaty and the Madrid Protocol, it is our international responsibility to ensure safety and environmental protection for this region.

The environment and safety measures outlined in this bill will be an important part of Australia's leadership on environmental protection in Antarctica. In June of this year Australia will be hosting the 35th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. The signatories to the Antarctic Treaty are all in various stages of legally implementing the measures agreed to at the previous meetings. This bill will see Australia in a position of strength at the June meeting. These actions will be a strong endorsement and encouragement to those parties yet to make decisive action in this direction, and will encourage them to take their international obligations seriously.

Until all the signatories to the Antarctic Treaty legally implement these measures they will not enter into force. For this reason I believe it is important that this bill is passed by the House. Thank you.