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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 1917

Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (16:45): I present the report of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories on the committee's visit to Antarctica, from 12 to 13 December 2012.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator PRATT: by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I am delighted to be able to make a few short remarks about the committee's trip to Antarctica. In September 2012, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Mr Tony Burke, invited members of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories to take part in a visit to Wilkins base in the Australian Antarctic Territory. The visit was undertaken by five members of the committee alongside five members of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications. Most disappointingly for me, I was unable to attend.

I know that those who went found it extremely worthwhile, and I also know that the experience very much underpins the interest and important oversight that the Joint National Capital and External Territories Committee provides on matters relating to Antarctica.

The committee visited the Australian Antarctic division headquarters at Kingston, followed by a return flight to Wilkins runway on 13 December. The committee had to be kitted out fully for inspections and briefings, and that involved the full Antarctic garb. The committee were very pleased to have been provided with this, largely because when they got there they did indeed find that it was extremely cold.

The committee held informal discussions with the mission staff, getting a really good understanding of the challenges facing the Antarctic Division. They conducted inspections down at the Kingston base in Tasmania and looked at the Aurora Basin deep field glaciology camp, which generates climate data from ice cores. The committee was shown around the camp facilities to get a bit of a feel for what the Antarctic bases are actually like.

As part of the inspection, the committee was briefed on the climate data being produced from the Antarctic ice cores particularly at Law Dome in the Australian Antarctic Territory. For the information of the Senate: 400 metres of ice core can give you 4,000 years of temperature data, and the presence of various elements in the core give indications of solar activity, volcanic activity and winds at different times. I certainly know this to be the case from my own visits to the Kingston base, looking at this very important science.

Concentrations of atmospheric gases can therefore be measured over time. So, too, can the extent to which Antarctica is soaking up water or releasing it into the ocean. This is important and necessary science as we strive to understand climate change.

The committee inspected the mechanical workshop and the krill laboratory, as well as looking at the manufacture and use of whale tags. On its flight to Antarctica and the Wilkins runway, the committee was briefed extensively on the work of the Australian Antarctic Division and the operation of the runway there. It is really important to know that Australia has invested rightly and heavily in a range of programs focused on climate science and environmental management. It is leading the way in research on waste management in Antarctica. Importantly, this is about reducing the environmental footprint of current activities there and also past activities there, where we were not quite so aware of the fragility of the Antarctic environment.

The committee found themselves in minus-eight degrees Celsius, with winds of 25 to 30 knots. They were indeed very pleased to have clothing provided by the Antarctic Division. The committee inspected a demonstration field camp for an ice-coring site, complete with a one-person accommodation tent, an ablutions tent and ice core equipment. The important thing about this is that the committee got a real taste of the conditions faced by researchers and support staff working in the field. They had a good look around Wilkins runway, including all of the facilities there. The committee were really pleased to have a good two hours on the ground in Antarctica.

From the committee's point of view, perhaps the most important point to come out of the visit is really the opportunity to pay tribute to the fantastic work of the people in the Australian Antarctic Division. They are very dedicated, enthusiastic and professional people. We have scientists who are absolutely responsible for world-leading and ground-breaking research that is incredibly important. It is a record of achievement of which Australia can be incredibly proud. We are really contributing to very important global science.

Importantly, though, what I want people to take away from this visit are the significant challenges facing Australia if we wish to remain one of the leading scientific influences in the Antarctic. The committee got firsthand experience of the enormous logistical effort required to do very simple tasks in Antarctica, let alone conduct world-class, ground-breaking scientific research.

These are challenges that our people there confront, with ageing equipment and facilities, the regular failure of the Wilkins runway—because it is essentially built on an icesheet—and therefore the need for more secure and more diverse transport options if Australia is to compete with other emerging Antarctic nations. Therefore, we must modernise our transport and infrastructure to support our Antarctic presence. This has got to include new ships, new air transport options, modern base facilities and better access to the Antarctic inland. It is about planning and funding this new generation of bases and equipment. It has to begin now, because we are dangerously out of date.

Australia must also maintain its Antarctic and Southern Ocean research effort. We are a leader in environmental and climate science because we have really sustained a bipartisan commitment to Antarctic science. This commitment must be maintained into the future, at the very least at current levels and in real terms, so that Australia can maintain a pre-eminence in these fields. From the committee's point of view, we do not believe that the significance of Australia's Antarctic science can be overstated. It is extremely important.

It is not just a matter of science, research and logistics; it is also a matter of strategic necessity. Australia's continued claim to the Australian Antarctic Territory would be hollow without a strong and enduring scientific and logistical presence on the Antarctic continent. Effectively, Australia must use the Australian Antarctic Territory or lose it. It is the kind of environment where other countries are already within our territory and are highly engaged there, they have a presence. We need to be the dominant presence in those areas. This does not mean that Australia should exclude other nations from the Australian Antarctic Territory, far from it. That is not the way things are done in the Antarctic Territory. It is a place of international collaboration and cooperation. Our claim to the Australian Antarctic Territory rests on our leadership within our claimed area. Continued leadership will require continued investment in cutting-edge science and logistics.

To conclude, I want to state the committee's ongoing interest in the work of the Australian Antarctic Division and the future of the Australian Antarctic Territory. We have a strong interest in the Antarctic Treaty System, its implications for Australia and the role of that system in the management and protection of Antarctica and, indeed, the wider Southern Ocean. It is vital to Australia's interests, especially with the growing presence of new Antarctic nations within and outside the Australian Antarctic Territory. The committee is conscious of the scientific research effort and the need to maintain our leadership in fields such as climate science and environmental management, and even new fields like Antarctic astronomy.

I want to thank the minister for the opportunity to travel to the Antarctic and to pay tribute to the fantastic staff of the Australian Antarctic Division.