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Wednesday, 3 December 1986
Page: 3271

Senator VIGOR(3.55) —This is an extremely important statement and we are very happy to be able to support the Government in relation to some of its aspects. The Australian Democrats welcome this long-awaited Government response to the report of the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources. We particularly welcome the Government's continued commitment to the need for strict environmental protection of the Antarctic and its recognition that Antarctica must be treated as a whole ecosystem and not just as a group of individual species of fauna and flora and a number of areas which can be mined. The Australian Democrats reiterate the need to ensure that this protection is reflected in the terms of the Antarctic minerals regime, which is currently being negotiated by member nations of the Antarctic Treaty. We are concerned that to date not enough environmental controls have been spelt out in the draft convention.

The mining states have been so keen to facilitate mining that they wish to have an unlimited ability to explore in the area and to mine Antarctica. This is particularly true of the United States of America, which wants to do away with strict and unlimited liability for exploration and mining in that Antarctic region. These people are particularly anxious that once a permit for exploration has been granted, this will guarantee that exploration can automatically proceed. In particular, they do not want to accept break points for reassessment between exploration, development and extraction in any mining operation, and they want to avoid any provisions in the minerals regime which would give the regulatory committee an option to refuse permission for later stages to proceed.

Another move being pushed by the mining states is that the minerals regime should be negotiated to allow for exploration to start now and that environmental safeguards should be negotiated only at a later stage. Such moves would be disastrous in giving absolutely no cover for protecting the Antarctic, since environmental damage can be as drastic in the exploratory stages of mining as at any later stage. In fact, exploratory drill holes, which may be left capped on the seabed, are particularly vulnerable to being scraped by passing icebergs, which regularly scour the seabed, taking everything in their path.

The Australian Democrats are most concerned to see that adequate environmental safeguards and strict and unconditional liability are accepted by any organisation or body undertaking mineral exploration, development or exploitation in the Antarctic region. The fragility of the Antarctic ecosystem and its deep freeze conditions, which preserve rather than heal any damage to the environment, make oil spills and heavy metal contamination and other hazards so much more dangerous than they would be in most normal circumstances, and make safeguards a mandatory restriction on any mining in the area. Australia must do everything in its power to ensure that statements on control are properly built in and spelt out in the minerals regime and not left for resolution until later, when it will be too late to enforce them.

The Environmental Advisory Committee of the Antarctic Treaty is a toothless tiger. We also need guarantees that its advice must be accepted by the regulatory committee of the minerals regime. The regulatory committee currently has 10 members. Two of them represent the two super-powers, that is, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the USA; four represent claimant states in the Antarctic; and four represent the Antarctic Treaty consultative parties. There is a strong likelihood that this regulatory committee may have a conflict of interest in its regulatory functions, so it is all the more important that the Environmental Advisory Committee be given some teeth in regulating its processes. It is also desirable that an outside body of environmental experts be given a position on the regulatory committee.

The Australian Democrats express strong support for the role played by Australia in the negotiations in relation to the mineral regime to date and for the leadership displayed by Australia in pressing for environmental provisions to be included in the minerals regime before it is endorsed. The Democrats also commend the Government for its support of most of the recommendations of the Senate Standing Committee, particularly for its proposal to ratify the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals. Indeed, this has been done and does not permit the harvesting of seals by Australian nationals for any purpose unless recommended by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources for environmental reasons alone.

We endorse the need for regulations for appropriate safety and environmental protection measures for expeditions to the Antarctic, but we would prefer these to be unrestricted in scope and not applying only to tourists and non-government expeditions. We must remember that last year a government ship was stuck in the ice, as well as the Southern Quest.

Senator Crichton-Browne —What is the point you are making?

Senator VIGOR —We want to have the same standards applied to the Government as are applied to the tourists and non-government expeditions. We can see no rationale for picking out just the private expedition when regulations would seem simpler if they applied to all expeditions in the region.

Finally, the Australian Democrats would like Australia to take initiatives towards declaring the whole of the Antarctic a world park and to reconsider our present Antarctic policy, which expresses Australia's desire to get a financial pay-off for the money we have invested in research. I remind the Government and the Senate that we are receiving such pay-offs in the form of better weather predictions, better communications and a much better understanding of the region to our south. To expect such pay-offs directly in terms of minerals extracted is unrealistic in view of the potential damage such operations can permanently inflict upon the Antarctic environment.

The other points which are definitely worth mentioning are the need to continue with the active program of rubbish clean-up in the area, which is a government commitment which it seems to be fulfilling quite effectively, and the need for environmental impact assessments, not only before embarking on mining ventures but also before any type of construction work is carried out-even surveys for things like airfields, new bases or intrusive experiments in the area. We have a lot of expertise in the Antarctic, and we should use this in the right way. World peace is currently threatened by the greed of many nations for whatever resources can be extracted from the Antarctic and, indeed, by its strategic importance in defence. Australia must be prepared to take a strong stand in preserving the Antarctic as a region of peace and co-operation and in protecting the world from the potential global damage which could result from an upset to this fragile polar region, which is so important to the climate of the world.