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Thursday, 22 March 2012
Page: 2634


Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia) (16:02): I am not sure how artful I feel this afternoon—

Senator Feeney: You're usually pretty good!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Senator Feeney. I shall do my best to follow the contributions that have been made on the previous matter. Like the previous matter, this is one on which there is strong bipartisanship. However, unlike the previous one, it is one on which I am not about to attempt to ping the government for any failings of administration. It is a rare occasion when one does not attempt to ping the government for any failings of its administration, because there are so many opportunities that I could take to do just that. On this occasion, I want to touch on the Antarctic and on the Antarctic Treaty (Environmental Protection) Amendment Bill 2011 that is before us and what this legislation will achieve. Antarctica is a very important continent to Australia. It is one that we do not spend enough time thinking about or considering.

The Lowy Institute has produced a very useful policy brief that highlights the significance of Antarctica. It talks about the fact that during the exploration of Antarctica, which occurred from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century—and we have seen some centenary events in recent times marking that exploration—we saw Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom claim sovereignty over territory. Australia's claim to the Australian Antarctic Territory was and remains the largest formal claim to sovereignty in Antarctica. In fact Australia claims around 42 per cent of Antarctica as sovereign Australian territory. I note that that claim is not necessarily recognised by all other countries, but nonetheless it operates in a certain way at present and particularly operates under the Antarctic Treaty framework which I will come to shortly.

The Lowy Institute brief notes that until the 1950s Antarctica was largely overlooked as a place of strategic significance. With the advent of the Cold War, however, states began to consider it as a potential location for submarine bases, nuclear testing and intelligence gathering. We can only imagine if states were to start talking about under­taking nuclear testing, basing submarines or mining in Antarctica what unease and concern that would bring about. Even then it brought about significant unease. To quell those concerns, in 1959 the claimant states I mentioned before—Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom—joined with Belgium, Japan, South Africa, the Soviet Union and the United States to negotiate the Antarctic Treaty to 'preserve the continent as a demilitarised zone for peaceful and cooperative science, free from international discord'.

I think it is worth reflecting on the time frame we are talking about—1959. This was a time in which the world was embroiled in the Cold War. We had a significant continent with significant potential geostrategic and geopolitical opportunities, and yet a good collection of states in the east and the west, in particular the United States and the Soviet Union, agreed to enact this treaty to protect Antarctica. That is something that shows just how significant this pristine continent was seen to be, even at that time, and that it was seen as something that we should preserve. Since the treaty came into force in 1961, the number of states party to it has grown to 48. In addition to the 12 original signatories, 16 other states have consultative party status allowing them to vote on decisions concerning Antarctic administration. The treaty has also been supplemented with several additional instruments focused on protecting the Antarctic environment and wildlife. Indeed, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, the Madrid protocol, is a key part of those and plays a key role in the amendments before us today. In recent years we have seen a significant increase of activity in Antarctica and around Antarctica. Many, many countries have opened new bases and new facilities within Antarctica. In fact, around 120 scientific bases now exist in Antarctica and Australia has cooperated with that. Within the area of the Australian claim, there are many different countries operating their own bases for their own scientific advancement. Countries such as China, India, Russia and the United States—which are not claimant states but have reserved the right to make claims over Antarctic territories—all have active scientific research programs in Antarctica and, as I have said, many of them within Australia's claimed territory.

As I indicated before, Australia's claims of territory are not universally recognised. Both the United States and Russia reject all sovereign claims in the region and reserve their rights to make their own future claims. Nonetheless, in this parliament we should recognise Australia's claimed 42 per cent of Antarctica and we should strive to ensure that it is protected.

The bill before us amends the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act, which does provide the central framework for Australia's Antarctic environmental legislation. The act gives particular effect to the obligations under the Madrid protocol, which I mentioned before, and sets out the environmental protection obligations for all activities in the Antarctic treaty area. The act seeks in particular to address issues around the conservation of Antarctic fauna and flora, including the specification of permits and specially protected areas. It addresses matters of environmental impact assessment and it addresses enforcement matters around offences and the use of inspectors.

This bill seeks to amend the Antarctic treaty act by focusing on three particular measures that have been adopted under that 1961 Antarctic treaty and in particular under the 1998 Madrid protocol. These measures relate to, firstly, insurance and contingency planning for tourism and non-government activities; secondly, issues around the liability arising from environmental emergencies; and, lastly, issues relating to the landing of tourists from ships visiting Antarctica. They do seek to strengthen the existing framework that is in place relating to the protection of Antarctica. These matters were considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, of which I am pleased to be a member. I therefore had the chance to consider these measures before they were ratified by Australia, as well as the chance today to contribute to the debate on this legislation.

If I can look at the amendments in sequence, they are described variously as measure 1, measure 4 and measure 15 as a result of the treaty-making process. Measure 1 deals with matters around costs associated with environmental emergencies in Antarctica and the liability thereof. As the JSCOT found, the costs associated with the response to an environmental emergency in the Antarctic are likely to be significant, given the region's distance from ports and response facilities and difficult operating conditions. That, of course, is a statement of the obvious: that it is not easy to get to Antarctica, it is not easy at different times of the year to get in and out of the Antarctic and there are real risks of how countries can respond to emergencies down there. It is highly likely that Australia, as a large claimant over the Antarctic and also as one of the countries with some proximity to the Antarctic, especially from the Australian Antarctic Division's base in Hobart, would be most likely to be one of those countries providing emergency response.

Following the consultative process, it was agreed that, in order to minimise the risk to the Antarctic environment, government and non-government operators alike should be obliged to undertake reasonable preventative measures, establish contingency plans, undertake prompt and effective response action to environmental emergencies they cause and compensate a party that responds to an environmental emergency in its stead. This is an important measure that deals with some of those particular concerns.

Measure 4, which relates to insurance and contingency planning for tourism and non-government activities, recognises, as does measure 15, the very significant growth of tourism activities and non-government activities in the Antarctic region. There are far more ships and there is far more tourist activity in the region than historically has been the case. Up until now, the region had largely been the domain of governments or government sanctioned missions and largely in the domain of scientific research that people traditionally associate the Antarctic with. Today there are more tourists looking at least to get close to the Antarctic and have that opportunity to see a spectacular site. Recognising and preparing adequately for the dangers associated with operations conducted in such an inhospitable and isolated environment was recognised by the JSCOT as being at the heart of measure 4, and in particular JSCOT highlighted that measure 4 seeks to address issues around: the health and safety of individuals participating in activities; the health and safety of rescuers and integrity of equipment used to undertake search and rescue operations in the Antarctic; the significant costs associated with the conduct of search and rescue and medical care and evacuation operations in the Antarctic; the potential for disruption to national Antarctic programs, particularly scientific research activities due to unplanned diversions of critical and limited resources to conduct a search and rescue and medical care and evacuation operations; and the lack of a right to compensation for costs under existing arrangements where parties provide assistance to vessels and aircraft in distress. The committee further noted that contingency plans and arrangements must be in place prior to activities commencing and that such plans cannot be reliant upon support from other operators or national programs unless prior agreement has been reached. So it really does attempt to put in place some type of framework of measures—a regime that ensures that assistance can be forthcoming. But of course it relies upon mutual cooperation and ensuring that parties understand their responsibilities when going into the Antarctic environment.

Measure 15 in particular tries to deal with some of the issues around tourism matters. It places some restrictions on tourism and other non-governmental activities in the Antarctic inside the treaty area. It recognises that the growth of tourism and the new requirements will mean that for vessels carrying more than 500 passengers operators must refrain from making any landings in the Antarctic. So there is very clearly a distinction there between being able to sail close to the Antarctic versus actually landing in the Antarctic. For vessels carrying 500 or fewer passengers, operators must coordinate with one another with the objectives that: no more than one tourist vessel is at any landing site at any one time; no more than 100 passengers are ashore at any one time; and a one to 20 guide-to-passenger ratio ashore is maintained. These are important considera­tions and they recognise the fragility of the Antarctic environment. They recognise that it is something that cannot be taken for granted and needs to be carefully managed, and with this growth in tourism activities there really is a need to ensure that they are managed and regulated in a way to guarantee the ongoing protection of that fragile environment.

The Australian government and Australia do have a very significant place in support­ing these measures, and I am pleased that the legislation has come to the parliament relatively swiftly after JSCOT concluded its consideration of these measures. In all of these cases JSCOT found that the Australian government has strategic and policy interests, that it is important to Australia to see the maintenance of the Antarctic Treaty system and the enhance­ment of Australia's standing and influence within it, and it is equally important to ensure the protection of the Antarctic environment. JSCOT further found that Australia needs to—as it indeed does and has done consistently under governments of all persuasions—proactively participate in the governance of the Antarctic Treaty system. Of course, if we are to maintain that claim over the Antarctic Territory and if we are to maintain a position of influence over decisions related to Antarctica, we do need to make sure that we are active within the Antarctic Treaty protocols and meetings and that, where they make decisions and where we find them to be in our national interest, we act on those decisions swiftly and appropriately. That is certainly why the JSCOT concluded that all these measures do contribute to the protection of the Antarctic environment and that, given Australia's strategic and policy interests in Antarctica, their implementation would directly contribute to the maintenance of the Antarctic Treaty system and an enhancement of Australia's standing and influence within it.

So it is with that in mind that the opposition is very pleased to support this legislation. It is a continuity of our support that dates back to the Menzies era, when the Antarctic Treaty was first entered into. It is a continuity of support that has lived through governments of all persuasions and it is one that we hope will continue in the future. It is one that we believe preserves a very special place in the world and ensures that a very fragile environment is kept in as pristine a state as possible. It ensures that valuable scientific and meteorological research is able to continue to be undertaken in this pristine environment to the benefit of our knowledge and to the way we apply that knowledge to ensure the advancement of humanity all around the world. I thank the government for bringing this legislation forward, as I say, swiftly after JSCOT concluded its findings. I hope that we can see other treaty member states take similar action so that we can ensure that these measures are applied across the board. I commend the bill to the Senate.