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Wednesday, 3 December 1986
Page: 3273

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE(4.06) —I wish to make some brief comments in respect of the response of the Government to the report of the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources, provoked by the comments made by Senator Vigor of the Australian Democrats. The first is to observe that yet again one cannot help but note that the priority of the Democrats seems to be to kick the Americans. I am not sure what brings on this hobby, but if Senator Vigor sought to understand the contribution that the Americans have made to both the minerals regime and the environment studies in the Antarctic and if he were prepared to be objective in his conclusions, he could record only that they have made an outstanding contribution in those fields. It is ironic that he endorses much of what the Australian Government has done but has criticised the American Government without being prepared to accept that the American budget-notwithstanding the fact that we claim one-third of the Antarctic land mass as ours and the Americans have no claim-is vastly greater than the amount which we allocate.

America's contribution to the minerals regime is the same as that of many other countries, including Australia and South Africa. It is terribly important that a minerals regime be in place soon so that environmental considerations will be able to be properly contemplated. The object of having an early minerals regime is to ensure that environmental considerations are taken into account and that minerals exploration does not take place in the Antarctic prior to such a regime because minerals exploration, more than anything else, would be detrimental to the ecology of the Antarctic. Anybody with concern for the environment in the Antarctic would be very enthusiastic about an early resolution of a minerals regime.

Senator Vigor —We need an environmental regime at the same time.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —They go hand in hand. The premise of a minerals regime is not simply an economic one but also is designed to ensure that the fragile, pristine nature of the Antarctic remains, as much as possible, as is. That can happen only after all factors have been taken into consideration.

It is worth noting that the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals could have been ratified some considerable time ago but there was conflict between the Antarctic Division of the Department of Science and the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, which likes to have its sticky finger in everything. Finally, that matter was resolved because the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) agreed to the Convention being the responsibility of the Department of Science.

With respect to the matter of rubbish, which was raised by Senator Vigor, it needs to be understood that an accumulation of more than 20 years' disposed rubbish is in the Antarctic, much of that not because of delinquency or inadequacy of concern but because of the physical difficulty of removing it. It has been a question of priorities, with small ships, such as the Nella Dan, travelling to the Antarctic and back in very short seasons. It has been a matter of priority whether to have scientists and researchers on board the ship, or whether to have cargoes of rubbish. Now that the Antarctic Division has got on charter the Icebird, a ship of considerable size, it is consciously and conscientiously removing as much rubbish as it possibly can, again given some limitations and judgment on priorities. A great deal has been done and it is something of which the present management of the Antarctic Division is very mindful. I say in passing that management has taken up, I think without exception, everything we recommended in the report in a very enthusiastic way. My view is that the management is excellent, and the comprehension of what needs to be done there has also been excellent.

There has to be some sort of regulation for shipping so as to ensure that there is no danger of private, as compared to government, shipping getting into difficulties. One does not have to be brilliant to understand the distinction that can be drawn between Dick Smith's ship going down there, and the Nella Dan and the Icebird; there is a vast difference in terms of logistics, communication, and the capacity for extracting themselves from difficulty. Australian ships go down there with a dedicated purpose. It is understood that, if they get into difficulty, naturally the appropriate steps will be taken to ensure that they are relieved as quickly as possible. What we do find is unco-ordinated, unauthorised-if one can use that term-private groups which tend to go to the Antarctic against the better advice, as recently happened, of the Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones) and run the grave risk of putting not only themselves in danger but also those who seek to rescue them in danger, and of imposing a very considerable cost on Australian taxpayers.

Senator Vigor —It was the Americans who rescued them.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —Yes, that was part of a co-ordinated attempt with Australians and, as I recall, the Soviets. There was some mention by Senator Vigor of the Nella Dan being stuck in the ice last year. That is always a hazard for a ship of that size and for a ship that does not have the icebreaking capacity of the more modern ships. But again it is a budgetary constraint. If Senator Vigor is saying that more money ought to be spent and that the Nella Dan should be taken off the run, so be it. It is something with which I would not disagree. Again, it is a question of priorities and a question of dollars and cents; something which does not seem to bear the weight of consideration with the Democrats.

The Nella Dan is required from time to time for extended periods to probe further south than the crew may wish to go. That is part of our scientific endeavours. The Nella Dan was never in danger, nor were the crew or the passengers on the ship. Ultimately, it was comfortably and safely rescued. I do not think it is fair to put the proposition that it was bad planning or bad management that caused the Nella Dan to be stuck. It is just a hazard. One can never predict the weather from day to day when one is several thousand miles away. That is the very reason there is no air base down there. It is always a hazard. Nobody can be certain of what the weather will be in the Antarctic months in advance when the Department is required to program visits to the Antarctic using the ships and the capacity it has.

I am glad that the Government has responded, as Senator Zakharov said, so quickly and so enthusiastically to our report. I thought that the report was a very comprehensive, sensible and balanced one. As I said earlier, the Department has done an excellent job in taking up our recommendations and in generally lifting not only the morale but also the level of scientific research and endeavour in the Antarctic; not to the level, I might say, that we can claim to be fulfilling all our obligations as a nation that claims one-third of the total land mass of the Antarctic, an area slightly smaller than the total size of the Australian continent, and where, I might add, during the summer months we have only about 160 people on the ground and a great deal fewer during the winter period. Our standard of research is improving daily and the budget is increasing. I hope that this Government and future governments continue to expand the level of research and the level of the budget.