Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories - 27/06/2012 - Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities annual report 2010-11

FLEMING, Dr Tony, Director, Australian Antarctic Division, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

FRENCH, Dr Greg, Assistant Secretary, International Legal Branch, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

MUNDY, Mr Jason, General Manager, Strategies Branch, Australian Antarctic Division, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

ROWE, Mr Richard, Senior Legal Adviser, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Committee met at 12:32

CHAIR ( Senator Pratt ): Welcome. I now open this hearing on Australia and the Antarctic. Before calling the first witness, is it the wish of the committee that the media be allowed to film the proceedings today in accordance with the rules set down for committees, which includes not taking footage or still images of papers or laptop screens? There being no objection, this was so ordered.

Today we are hearing from the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, including the Australian Antarctic Division and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I welcome the representatives from those departments to the hearing. As the National Capital and External Territories Committee, we have oversight into our external territories, which include the Antarctic. It is something that as a committee we have a great deal of interest in and we note there have been some significant developments, but I suppose that will always be the case when it comes to such a significant place. I invite each department or group to make a short opening statement to the committee and then we will launch into some dialogue.

Dr Fleming : We will give you a brief background about the Australian Antarctic program and then passed to Richard, who will talk to you about the Antarctic Treaty System which governs Antarctica. Our program is responsible for both the scientific research and operational and logistics matters. We run three Antarctic stations—Davis, Casey and Mawson—and we also run a station on Macquarie Island, which is in the subantarctic zone. We are also responsible for the administration of Heard and McDonald Islands external territory. I will pass to Jason to give a more full description of our operations.

Mr Mundy : By way of overview of the way we progress outcome 3, I will give you a quick run-through of what the Australian Antarctic Division does and then I will move to an account of some of the things we have done over the course of the last season in advancement of those objectives. The Australian Antarctic Division's goal is to advance Australia's strategic, scientific, environmental and economic interests in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean by protecting, administering and researching the region. We achieve this by delivering an Australian presence in the Australian Antarctic Territory, in the Heard Island and McDonald Islands territory and their adjacent waters. Our activities include scientific research, the operation of three permanent Antarctic continental stations—Casey, Davis and Mawson stations. We also run support facilities in Hobart. The management and implementation of a combined sea, air and continental transport capability and the administration and management of the Australian Antarctic Territory and Heard and McDonald Islands.

In the subantarctic, the AAD maintains a research station on Macquarie Island that coordinates and where relevant participates in research aligned to the Australian Antarctic strategic science plan. At Macquarie Island the division services the needs of the Australian government, including where relevant supporting the Tasmanian government's activities there. The AAD leads and delivers a world-class science program under the Antarctic science strategic plan, which is focused on the policy needs of government and on our international obligations. AAD scientists contribute to research elements of the science program most appropriate for government based scientists and the majority of the research is contributed by university and other research based organisations.

The scientific program has a major focus on research relevant to sound environmental stewardship of the Australian Antarctic Territory of the Southern Ocean and of Heard Island and McDonald Islands. It also provides fundamental information for understanding the key role of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean in Australian and global climate change, and the consequences of climate driven changes in their systems. The work is underpinned by research that furthers understanding of the diversity, structure, function these and vulnerability of terrestrial and marine Antarctic and Southern Ocean ecosystems.

The AAD works to engage internationally in matters affecting Antarctic governance arrangements, including under the Antarctic Treaty, particularly its committee on environmental protection and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, and other international instruments. We support Australia's environmental interests by maintaining high standards of environmental management in our own Antarctic operations and by encouraging other nations active in Antarctica to meet similar standards. We do that through relationships of mutual benefit with various nations active in eastern Antarctica and key bilateral partners. If it is of interest to you, I might run through a few highlights from the last season of the sorts of specific activities that we have undertaken in the furtherance of those goals.

CHAIR: Thank you. The committee last visited the division in Tasmania before the last season.

Mr Mundy : Okay. I will broadly divide these into three areas: our operational, our scientific and our broader policy actions over the course of the last season. On operations, we maintained four permanent stations by maintaining them, operating them and resupplying them during the 2011-12 season. A total of 201 shipping days supported Australia's Antarctic Program. The shipping schedule was extended to include a mid-season voyage comprising a visit to Commonwealth Bay, which commemorated the centenary of Sir Douglas Mawson's first Australasian Antarctic expedition, as well as conducting a marine science program in a region not frequently visited.

On the scientific side, the Australian Antarctic Science Program undertook a total of 97 science projects from 27 institutions, involving collaboration with a further 244 institutions from 37 countries, and it supported 112 higher degree students, including 76 PhD students.

CHAIR: Senators need to go to a division in the chamber, so remaining members will form a subcommittee so that the hearing can continue.

ACTING CHAIR: Please continue.

Mr Mundy : Also on the scientific program in 2011, 237 publications were produced within the Australian Antarctic Science Program. 147 of these were published in peer reviewed international literature and 11 contributed to supporting Australia's position in key international policy forums. A total of 36 science projects sent field personnel to Antarctica. Eight projects went to Macquarie Island and 10 marine science projects were undertaken.

On the broader policy side, the Australian Antarctic Division, together with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, successfully hosted the 35th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Hobart from 11 to 20 June. That involved more than 300 delegates from 50 nations in Hobart, and we will talk in a bit more detail about the outcomes of that meeting shortly. The Antarctic Division also played a leading role in a number of discussions at the 30th meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources and progress was made here on a number of Australia's key priorities, particularly including progress towards a representative suite of marine protected areas around Antarctica.

On the legislative side, the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Amendment Bill 2011 was passed by the Senate just a week or so ago and that successfully passed into Australian law three measures that arose from Australia's obligations under the Antarctic Treaty meeting, particularly relating to safety and environmental protection of operations in Antarctica.

Finally, we signed formal agreements of cooperation with three countries during the recent Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. Those were China, France and Russia, and they will underpin future cooperation in the fields of Antarctic science and logistical activities. That is my quick round-up of the Antarctic Division's activities over the last year.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you. Before we get on to the department can I clarify something with Dr Fleming and Mr Mundy. Have either of you done a posting in Antarctica and are either of you scientists?

Dr Fleming : I am a scientist but not an Antarctic scientist. I went down to the Antarctic in January.

ACTING CHAIR: For a visit or have you done any form of research or was it just a leadership type visit?

Dr Fleming : No, I have been in the director's role for about 10 months. Prior to that I was not within the Antarctic Division but I led our commemoration service at Commonwealth Bay and I visited Casey station. And I visited the French station at Dumont d'Urville. So I was down in Antarctica for about six weeks during January- February.

Mr Mundy : For my part, like Dr Fleming, I joined the Antarctic Division in about the last 10 months. I have not been formally posted to Antarctica. I have undertaken a short visit to Macquarie Island. I am not a scientist.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you for the clarification.

Mr ADAMS: Where are you stationed?

Dr Fleming : Kingston.

Mr Rowe : I would like to begin by mentioning that, from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's perspective, we of course work very closely with the Australian Antarctic Division on Antarctic policy. The role of Foreign Affairs and Trade is particularly to provide legal and policy advice on Australia's involvement in Antarctica, including maintaining and enhancing relations with the Antarctic Treaty parties and also advising on Australia's international obligations. It is also DFAT that leads the Australian delegation to the annual Antactic Treaty Consultative Meetings, such as the one that was held recently in Hobart that we will be very pleased to brief the committee about shortly.

I would like to make some comments, as was foreshadowed, about the Antarctic Treaty System because this is the international cooperation framework under which all parties active in Antarctica consult on their activities and the management of the continent. It is a system which embodies a spirit of cooperation. Cooperation is really a significant aspect of national involvement in Antarctica. It is inherent throughout the interaction between the countries that are active there. This is the system within which Australia pursues its national interests in relation to the Australian Antarctic Territory, which is 42 per cent of the entire area of the continent, but also its international interests with the other treaty parties.

The system essentially comprises a set of treaties which provide this framework. I will just mention those briefly. Of course, there is the Antarctic Treaty itself, which entered into force in 1961. The 50th anniversary was held last year. That treaty is the cornerstone of the system. Then there is the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, called the Madrid Protocol, which former Australian Prime Minister Hawke and former French Prime Minister Rocard were instrumental in driving. That entered into force in 1998. The third treaty is the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. The fourth is the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals. So there are these four treaties that comprise the framework. It is within these treaties, as I say, that Antarctic Treaty parties operate and within which Australia pursues its own national and international interests.

I will just mention on the Antarctic Treaty for the information of the committee that this treaty was negotiated against the backdrop of the Cold War and it was intended to ensure that Antarctica remained a place where science predominated and disagreements were resolved peacefully through cooperation. This is reflected in the provisions of the treaty itself which stipulate that Antarctica shall only be used for peaceful purposes. The effectiveness of the treaty and its continuing relevance really make it a model of international relations. There was a provision, for example, that the treaty could be revised or reviewed after 30 years of its entry into force. There was not a call for such a review. It continues to this day to remain a very significant and cohesive treaty and it is the fundamental instrument that all parties conduct their activities in relation to Antarctica against.

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antactic Treaty, which is known as the Madrid Protocol for short because the protocol was concluded in Madrid in Spain in 1991, declares Antarctica to be a natural preserve devoted to peace and science. It provides for a very comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and the dependent ecosystems. There are the two other treaties mentioned—the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which aims to conserve those living resources, and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, which is an important convention but is largely inactive now because no states have indicated their desire to recommence commercial sealing in Antarctica. So, that is the framework. There is, of course, in accordance with the provisions of the treaty and the protocol in particular, an annual meeting of treaty parties. That meeting was held recently in Hobart. If it is of interest now, I could mention some of the outcomes of that meeting.

ACTING CHAIR: That sounds good.

Mr Rowe : And my colleagues from the Australian Antarctic Division might wish to add to the points I am about to make. The meeting was held in Hobart from 11 to 20 June. It was the first of the new eight-day meetings that Australia had promoted. Previously the meetings had been held over a 10-day period, but we were looking for a more efficient, sharply focused format. It was agreed two meetings ago that we would move to the eight-day format. This was the third time that Australia had hosted the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. The other two occasions were in 1961 and 1983. Both those meetings were held here in Canberra. This meeting was held in Hobart because of the importance of Hobart as the Antarctic gateway, with the concentration of not only the Australian Antarctic Division but also a range of other organisations, and specialists—scientists and experts—focused on Antarctica. Also, there is the fact that Hobart is used by other treaty parties as a base from which to go down to Antarctica.

Mr ADAMS: And it is a very nice place to be.

Mr Rowe : Yes, it is a very nice place to be. Being a Tasmanian I would certainly endorse that! The meeting had the very strong support of the Tasmanian government. The meeting, as these annual treaty party meetings usually do, focused on a fairly wide-ranging agenda on the governance and management of Antarctica, consistent with the requirements of the treaty. The meeting focused on legal aspects, environmental aspects—particularly those relating to the protocol on environmental Protection to the Antactic Treaty—on environmental aspects, tourism, operational issues and safety issues. So quite a suite of subject areas were addressed at the meeting.

The meeting produced a number of substantive outcomes, many of which frankly were driven by Australia and represented Australian initiatives. Among them was the agreement to develop a multi-year strategic work plan that would prioritise the activities of Antarctic Treaty parties. Particularly, thiis is aimed at addressing the challenges that confront Antarctica. There has, of course, been a fairly set agenda over the years, and a lot of very solid work has been done. There is a recognition and a discussion at these annual meetings of where emphasis and focus should be, but there has not hitherto been a discussion of a strategy-plan within the treaty party meeting. Under the protocol there has been such a strategic plan but under the treaty party meeting itself there had not been any articulation of such a strategic plan. The meeting agreed, significantly, that such a plan would be developed and work will go on between now and the next meeting, which is to be held in Belgium in 2013, on developing such a plan, which will also be further elaborated at the meeting in Belgium.

The meeting also agreed that further emphasis should be given to bringing on board a number of what are called the non-consultative parties to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. At the moment under the system there are 28 consultative parties and there are 22 non-consultative parties—50 parties in all to the Antarctic Treaty. This is a meeting of the parties. The difference is that the 28 consultative parties are the ones that are very active in Antarctica, such as Australia, and they are the ones that can make decisions in relation to Antarctica. The 22 non-consultative parties are the ones that have a strong interest in Antarctica but are not necessarily very active down there.

In relation to the very significant environmental protocol, all the 28 consultative parties are parties to the protocol, but only seven of the 22 non-consultative parties are party to it. Australia, France and Spain have been carrying out an initiative over the last year to increase the number of parties to the protocol. There was a report on that and the meeting agreed that we should continue that process. That is quite significant in building adherence to the protocol.

To very briefly comment on some other outcomes, one was, as you may have seen, the issuing of a communique. This is the first time that the Antarctic Treaty meeting has issued an actual communique on its deliberations and outcomes. Of course, several months after the meeting a formal report is put out by the secretariat of the treaty, which is based in Buenos Aires in Argentina. But an Australian initiative was to issue a communique to demonstrate what the treaty parties actually do and what they achieve at these meetings. That communique, which is a public document, elaborates the main outcomes, which included, for example, measures to further reduce the risk posed by the introduction of what are called non-native species into Antarctica—alien species that could have a negative impact on the environment. There was also an agreement to further develop the system of Antarctic protected areas, which are inherent in the Madrid Protocol as a designation of areas that are particularly important from an environmental or scientific point of view, so there is a very strict regime around these areas, of which there are now 72, to ensure they are handled very sensitively. Also, there was a decision to take measures to promote the repair of past environmental damage, which is damage that has been occasioned by waste that has been left—equipment and so forth—and also to counter the environmental impact of stations that might be unused. That was a significant outcome. There was also a focus on enhancing an understanding of global climate change, through scientific research, to feed in to the global consideration of climate change issues. Antarctic climate change science is really quite significant, and it is an area in which Australia is very active. Finally, there was the agreement to increase the safe and what is called environmentally sensitive conduct of tourism activities of tourists who go down there, for example on yachts. There have been some incidents and tragic accidents in the Antarctic area in recent times. The aim is to set guidelines and ensure that there is a safer regime for such visits.

These were the key outcomes that came out of the meeting. It was a very substantive meeting, which is reflected in the communique. In Australia's involvement in the meeting in Hobart, and leading and chairing it, we were very focused on ensuring that not only were Australia's interests very strongly pursued and reflected in the discussions, but also that we did secure outcomes.

CHAIR: The opening remarks from both departments and from the Antarctic Division will give us a good starting point for discussion and questions. Mr Rowe, I note that in your opening remarks you talked about the engagement with non-party and non-state organisations in bringing them in to discussions about the treaty system. I would imagine that that is because of the kind of activity from non-party and non-state actors—having activities in the Antarctic—and the tourism issue is clearly one of those. Has there been an increase in non-party or non-state activity in the Antarctic and in the Southern Ocean in recent years?

Mr Rowe : The short answer is: no, there has not been any significant increase by the non-consultative parties in relation to Antarctica itself. These parties, while they fully support the Antarctic Treaty and are party to that treaty, are not all active in the way that the consultative parties are. In other words, they do not necessarily engage in scientific research there on any large scale or they have not established stations. There is in fact quite a distinction between the activities of the consultative parties like Australia, which are very actively engaged, and the non-consultative parties. Nonetheless, the fact that the non-consultative parties have a strong interest in Antarctica and are parties to the treaty is in itself significant. It reflects an interest, but their level of active implementation of that interest has not been very significant; nor has it been so in relation to, for example, tourism, which is conducted by private tour operators who are regulated under another international organisation.

CHAIR: Which one is that?

Mr Rowe : Sorry?

CHAIR: Which international organisation are they regulated by?

Mr Rowe : The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), which is an observer to the Antarctic Treaty meetings. That is a body that—

CHAIR: But who would mandate the conditions under which that happens?

Mr Rowe : It is the treaty parties themselves—IAATO, as it is called, participates in the treaty meetings, but it is the treaties parties themselves. The treaty parties make decisions and set regulations and guidelines in relation to activities in Antarctica, including in relation to tourism.

CHAIR: How do we go in monitoring the things which might fall outside the treaty system or international law and which are significant when it comes to the Antarctic? One example might be fishing in international waters by non-party states—but those things are probably governed by the treaty. But if you are a nation state then clearly, if something happens, you have the capacity to create new law and address something quite quickly. How does our treaty system cope with those kinds of developments that might fall outside the treaty regime?

Dr French : I will go back to your previous question and then follow up on your current question. I will just add also that there have been some developments with respect to countries which have had activities in Antarctica but which have not been within the Antarctic Treaty System. We were very pleased to welcome both Malaysia and Pakistan as new states parties to the Antarctic Treaty. They are countries which had in the past been present in Antarctica conducting activities, and they now joining the system and recognising it as the preeminent context in which to be active in Antarctica. Pakistan also became a party to the Madrid Protocol, and Malaysia has indicated its intention to become a party. This is further evidence of the fact that those states which are active in Antarctica do see becoming part of the Antarctic Treaty System as the most effective way of ensuring that their activities are within a broader regulatory framework which can advance the interests of all states in Antarctica. With respect to your second question: I suppose that in fisheries, which are regulated through the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources or CCAMLR, these issues do arise. In that context it is fair to say that it is not a significant issue in Antarctica terrestrially. With respect to the CCAMLR area, these are the same sort of issues that are faced by regional fisheries management organisations around the world to the extent that you do not have all parties belonging to all regional agreements. There will be states and countries active in fishing in areas where they are not party to the regional fisheries management convention or organisation.

An overarching agreement, the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement, which is an implementing agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides the framework within which these regional fisheries management agreements and organisations, including CCAMLR, function, and creates some obligations requiring states which are not within that regional framework to respect it. To that extent, the answer with respect to fishing activities in the Antarctic marine areas is the same as elsewhere. A framework has evolved. It is not yet completely foolproof but it creates a framework of obligations which seek to ensure that even states that are not party to the regional fisheries management arrangements, but are engaged in fishing activities, should become parties to that. If they are not they should nonetheless respect those requirements.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Could I ask some questions about how the budget cuts to the Antarctic division will work over the coming years. The notes I have here say that there is a $9.5 million reduction in appropriations in 2012-13 but it started in 2011-12. Is that right? Is this note inaccurate? Are there any reductions in expansion which are affecting this present financial year?

Dr Fleming : The present financial year—

Senator HUMPHRIES: Yes. The one that is about to end.

Dr Fleming : There is no reduction in funding for the present financial year. We have a reduction in funding of about two per cent for next financial year.

Senator HUMPHRIES: That is fine. The note did not make any sense so I wanted to check with you. The reduction in expansion in forward years is of some $10 million to $12 million; is that right?

Dr Fleming : It is less in 2012-13. It is about a two per cent reduction. It is going from—I do not have the exact figures with me—$103 million to $101 million; something like that. It is a smaller percentage reduction than many other agencies have been given through 2012-13. That is a reflection of the importance of the Antarctic program.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Is that a combination of the enhanced efficiency dividend and other decisions made in the budget about the division in particular, or is it just the efficiency dividend?

Dr Fleming : It is really just the efficiency dividend offset by a bit of internal redistribution in the department.

Senator HUMPHRIES: I see that the budget papers suggest that from 2014-15 onward there will be no flights between Hobart and Casey Station. There are 15 a year at the moment. What is the explanation for the ending of flights?

Dr Fleming : We currently run an ice runway at Wilkins which is just inland from Casey. We have had some problems in the last two years with temperatures rising above the threshold of minus five degrees about that far below the surface during late December through to January and into early February, so we have had to—

Senator HUMPHRIES: So the runway is melting, in other words.

Dr Fleming : Yes. That comment is probably a bit extreme, but we cannot guarantee the structural integrity when it rises above minus five degrees. We have had to be very cautious about the flights, but we are planning to use it this year and the following year. We have funding to do that and we will assess it again next year, about whether we pursue funding for the following years. I think that is quite likely.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Funding to do what—to make the runway—

Dr Fleming : To make the runway. Each year we have to construct the runway. It is quite a bit of work. We have a camp there. They have to clear the surface and make sure the surface is quite flat, and then they have to do a lot of other work around the edges to make sure that the runway is usable. I can go into a lot of the technical detail, but it takes a few weeks to construct the runway.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Is there an alternative to flights into Casey?

Dr Fleming : We sometimes fly from Hobart through to McMurdo, which is the American station, and then we can take people from McMurdo through to Casey on other aircraft. That requires the indulgence of the Americans. They have been accommodating with that process so far. We barter some flights. We take some of the Americans down to McMurdo and in return they provide some flights from McMurdo on to Casey in the Hercules aircraft.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Doesn't that need the runway for those Hercules to—

Dr Fleming : No. The Hercules are ski equipped aircraft, so they can land on a ski way rather than an ice runway. A ski way is easier to prepare and we prepare a ski way each season at all of our stations. Sorry—that is technical terminology.

Senator HUMPHRIES: You are proposing to cut scientific publications from 200 a year to about 150 a year, according to the budget papers. What sort of saving does that make?

Dr Fleming : It is really not about a saving; it is about refocusing our scientific program. We have just this year started the Antarctic Science Strategic Plan for the next 10 years—2011 is its start date—and we are trying to refocus our scientific activities that we support to make sure they are focused on government policy priorities. We are doing fewer but larger scientific projects. So it is not really about a savings measure; it is about refocusing of the scientific program.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Lastly, regarding replacement of the Aurora Australis, what is the latest on the plan for that?

Dr Fleming : The Aurora Australis is now 22 years old. We think, and P&O, the owners of the ship, think that it will need replacing by about 2016-17, or maybe a year after that. We are having discussions inside government about the acquisition of a new icebreaker. There are no conclusions to those discussions at the moment, but we are actively discussing inside of government and with other agencies about the strategies to acquire a new icebreaker.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Given what you said about the planes, there is really no alternative but to have a seagoing capacity to reach the stations.

Dr Fleming : Yes. You need ship based support for the program anyway, irrespective of aviation support, because you need to be able to resupply these stations. Macquarie Island can only be reached by sea. Also, the continental stations—Davis, Casey and Mawson—need bulk resupply and they need resupply of their fuel, and that can only be ship based. Aviation can be best at transporting expeditioners and small cargo to and from Antarctica, but we will always need a ship based system as well to be able to resupply our stations.

Mr ADAMS: Thank you very much for your advice and report of the Antarctic Treaty consultations. That was very good. Is there any need to move the part of DFAT that deal with the treaties to Hobart so they can be a part of it? There are several other countries there.

Mr Rowe : We operate very closely and very effectively with our colleagues in the Australian Antarctic Division who are based in Hobart. The very close means of communication and the current situation work well, I would say, in pursuing and maintaining Australia's interests in Antarctica.

Mr ADAMS: So not at this stage, I will take as the reply. The Howard government sold the buildings of the base. Do we refer to the Kingston base as a base?

Dr Fleming : No, headquarters, I guess.

Mr ADAMS: They sold the building. They must have been trying to balance the budget or something. How much life is left in those buildings we have down there?

Dr Fleming : I think it is indefinite. We are on that site for the long term, so we continually do maintenance on the buildings and they serve us well.

Mr ADAMS: Is the space okay for your needs?

Dr Fleming : The space is sufficient for our needs. Some of our staff are based at the university and that is an appropriate location for them because they interact with the university scientists and the scientists from the cooperative research centre as well.

Mr ADAMS: Following Senator Humphries line of inquiry, did we make the wrong decision about Wilkins? The runway is just not working. I am not trying to blame anyone, but did we make the wrong decision there?

Dr Fleming : I am not in a position to judge that. What they did at Wilkins was remarkable. They were able to create an ice runway and we were able to create an air link between Hobart and East Antarctica, which was a remarkable achievement. We do not know whether the climate cycle is short term or long term. We worry that there is a long-term warming trend in that part of Antarctica, but we do not have sufficient data to be able to conclusively reach that conclusion. It is a year-by-year proposition and we will see how we go over the next two years.

Mr ADAMS: We are going to have to make a decision about it sometime though, are we not?

Dr Fleming : Yes, absolutely. We are looking at our options for air links to East Antarctica. Air links are becoming increasingly popular for Antarctic nations because it means expeditioners can fly in, do a job and fly out. That is going to be an increasingly important part of our operations.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Can we build a permanent runway as opposed to an ice one?

Dr Fleming : Before my time they did a lot of analysis around all of our stations. They concluded that Wilkins was the only location to build an ice runway. Ice runways can be permanent but they have to be recreated each year because we cannot run them during the winter. I think there was a lot of analysis done about a decade ago of whether a hard surface runway would be feasible in East Antarctica, and I think that that came to the conclusion that there was not a suitable location. There were also concerns about the level of environmental impact caused by creating a hard surface runway. But we keep all of the air-link options under review.

Mr ADAMS: We do not want decisions about how many people go and that sort of thing cutting into these sorts of decisions. It just seems that this has been a problem. We have not solved the problem, so I think some of us will be looking to see what the outcome is and how can we solve the problem.

Dr Fleming : Is this the problem of the air link?

Mr ADAMS: Yes. There were certain expectations. Those things have been put on hold. Who is making the decisions here? What is driving the decision-making? We seem to be diddling along, but I think we will be looking at that in a minute. I just have one more question in relation to the treaties. Are there further treaties to bring together with Antarctica or do we have the framework that will allow us to deal with all the issues, such as tourism and people coming down on private yachts? I am talking about these sorts of thing. Are the mechanisms there for us to deal with that in the present framework, or do we have to try to gather people together to get other treaties?

Mr Rowe : I consider that the collection of treaties which comprises the framework I outlined earlier is very comprehensive and that the two annual meetings, the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting—the regular meeting—and the meetings which are held in relation to the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, are together a means of ensuring that that framework and its comprehensive aspect and any matters which arise out of the treaties that comprise that framework can be adequately dealt with.

I think that there is a very keen awareness and consciousness among treaty parties of the need to remain alert to any developments and to address issues that arise in these two different fora as reflected by, for example, the outcomes of the recent meetings, which are fairly broad-ranging in their focus. But those outcomes, I would say, indicate the fact that together with what will occur later in the year with the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources meeting, which is held in Hobart in October, there is enough scrutiny and means to take action.

Ms BRODTMANN: I have one question now. I have a number of others that I will put on notice, and they are all in the tourism sphere. On the communique: you indicated that there was agreement to implement some guidelines on responsible yacht expeditions. We have heard some real horror stories about what goes on down there in terms of some particularly idiotic and reckless behaviour. I am interested to know what the guidelines will include and whether there were any discussions on cruise ships, because we have also heard about some significant issues with cruise ships going down to that part of the world and getting stuck and then people having to travel for days to try to rescue people. So I was wondering, firstly, what will be in the guidelines and, secondly, if they are broader than just yachts.

Mr Mundy : The guidelines themselves they are basically a set of principles for the planning of safe and environmentally-responsible yacht visits to Antarctica. The guidelines which were adopted at this year's meeting were focused specifically on setting out some rules and guidelines on how yachts should conduct themselves while in Antarctic waters.

Ms BRODTMANN: The guidelines are only that though; they not mandatory?

Mr Mundy : That is correct. To return to a theme we visited earlier, all passenger vessel visits to Antarctica are required to operate in accordance with the rules put in place for passenger shipping under the IMO. The International Maritime Organisation rules govern conduct of activities in Antarctic waters. It has put in place some special guidelines for shipping in Antarctic waters. That was the result of a request some years ago by the Antarctic Treaty consultative parties. The IMO is currently in a process of developing mandatory guidelines for ships in this area.

Tourism in Antarctica has been one of those issues which has been an area of focus for the Antarctic Treaty meeting for the many years. It reached its peak in 2007 when tourist numbers were increasing very rapidly. I think they topped out at something over 40,000 visits in that year. Since then, a range of reasons has seen the number of tourist visits to Antarctica decline to a point where in the last season there were about 26,500 visits to Antarctica. That included both people who got off ships and went on shore and those who were cruise passengers only. Interestingly, the recent trend, partly as a result of international economic conditions, has been towards a decline in tourist visits to Antarctica. The treaty parties have put in place some rules in the form of a liability annexe to the Madrid Protocol which will set in place, when implemented by all parties, a system where those who are conducting shipping activities in Antarctica which result in environmental damage will be liable for that damage. That was passed into Australian law through the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Amendment Bill which recently went through.

Ms BRODTMANN: I want to flag that there will be other questions on notice on tourism.

CHAIR: To follow up on Ms Brodtman's questions, how is it regulated which vessels are suitable to visit the region?

Dr Fleming : The IMO is responsible for that. Are you concerned about fishing vessels?

CHAIR: I am concerned about vessels that should not be there because they are not well equipped and are, therefore, more likely to be prone to falling into trouble while visiting.

Mr Mundy : By way of overview comment, at the moment the vast majority, in fact, almost all tourism which occurs in Antarctic waters is conducted under the auspices of Antarctic nations and is governed by the rules that come out of that forum. There is very little external activity. It is really the occasional but very tragic incidents that you see with private yacht operators, for example, going down there that tend to attract attention in the headlines.

Mr SIMPKINS: About five days ago, the Norwegian Polar Institute reported a study they had done which suggests the accumulation of ice across the continent is higher than the melting. Do you have a view on that yet? Is there anything you can tell me about that?

CHAIR: And is that why Western Australia has declining rainfall? Are they getting the rain instead of us?

Dr Fleming : In part, I will take that question on notice, relay it to our scientists and they can give you a more considered response than I can. We are very active in studying the Antarctic ice sheet. There is clear evidence of the thinning in West Antarctica. There is continuing scientific work in East Antarctica about the icesheet. I can take that question on notice and give you a considered response from our scientists.

CHAIR: When we visited the division, scientists talked to us about the link between south-west Western Australian weather patterns and, indeed, some of the Antarctic—

Dr Fleming : Yes, and we can give you information on that.

Mr SIMPKINS: Across the whole continent, is it increasing in density or is it decreasing in density? That is my main point.

Dr Fleming : Yes, I understand.

Mr SIMPKINS: I have two more questions which I think can be fairly brief. How many non-core, non-posted personnel visit Antarctica each year? I am talking about people who are not part of the division and are not posted.

Dr Fleming : Very few. Staff of the stations are generally contracted, so I guess they are part of the division and posted. We have scientists from associated institutions which we carry south to do research in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica, and we carry people like me to understand our Antarctic operations. I cannot give you an exact number. I am just trying to figure out the categories. We also run an arts fellowship program. We take one or two artists each year. It is like an artist-in-residence program. They are very productive. Jason has just reminded me that we carry some media down to the Antarctic. For example, there was the commemoration voyage, which we did in January this year, to commemorate the Mawson centenary. We carried an ABC film crew, an AAP journalist and a photographer down to relay images from that commemoration event back to the mainland.

Mr SIMPKINS: Basically, just about every seat on a plane or every berth on a boat is for core personnel, with the exception of these very few numbers?

Dr Fleming : Yes, absolutely.

Mr SIMPKINS: My last question is goes back to DFAT, Mr Rowe. Why did you feel that a communique was required with regard to the latest meeting in Hobart? Is there a PR issue here and you felt it was necessary to demonstrate that things are being achieved?

Mr Rowe : There were several considerations. One was the fact that the outcomes of the meeting were basically not made available publicly and we are very much aware that there is very broad international interest in what is happening in Antarctica, particularly in relation to scientific research. That was not available until the formal report was issued, as I mentioned, several months after the meeting. One of the reasons was to make the outcomes immediately available. Another was to indicate the very serious focus that the treaty parties give to the range of issues that I mentioned and also to indicate how effectively the system that I outlined is operating. As I mentioned before, one very positive aspect is the fact that the Antarctic Treaty parties do cooperate very closely in what could be regarded as a model of such interaction, in carrying forward and giving effect to the principles and objectives of the Antarctic Treaty and the related instruments. Frankly, there was, you might say, a public diplomacy aspect to the communique, but essentially it was focused very much on the substance of the meetings and making those outcomes immediately available.

Mr SIMPKINS: I have been called to the chamber as well, but there is one last thing. Was it eight days of meetings?

Mr Rowe : It was eight days of actual meeting, yes. Frankly, all the parties at the meeting were collectively able to conduct the work in a very focused way within that eight-day time frame, and so the next meeting will also be eight days. So you might say we have been able to entrench that.

CHAIR: Mr Simpkins, would you mind moving that we have a committee meeting of two? That way we can let you go.

Mr SIMPKINS: I would like to move that.

CHAIR: Thank you—so carried.

Senator HUMPHRIES: I just wanted to mention that I have a picture painted by one of those artists who went to Antarctica hanging in my office at the moment. It is quite a wonderful work of art, so thank you for facilitating that kind of interaction between the arts and sciences. I want to follow up on a question by Ms Brodtmann. When we have a rescue necessary in Antarctic waters of a stricken yacht or whatever, against whose budget does the cost of that fall? Is it your division, Dr Fleming, or someone else's?

Dr Fleming : If our ship is the closest vessel and it is called on to render assistance, then that goes against our budget and we are very happy to render assistance. That is the code of the sea and we are content that that is one of our obligations.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Sure. Presumably if it costs you any money then you have to not do other things with the ship during that time. So other things might have to suffer because you have been diverted into a rescue operation.

Dr Fleming : Yes, absolutely, but that is what goes with having a ship on high seas.

Senator HUMPHRIES: I understand.

Dr Fleming : Jason, did you want to add something?

Mr Mundy : I was just going to talk about the management of any incidents at sea. In the instance of an incident in the Southern Ocean, there are basically five rescue coordination centres. They are allocated across Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and South Africa. Whichever RCC's zone the incident occurs in, they will be responsible for coordinating the rescue. In the event that there were such an incident in the Australian zone, AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority in Canberra, would be responsible for coordinating that, and they do that utilising whatever available assets are nearby at the time. Given that assets managed by the Australian Antarctic Division are those most frequently in the area, they are the ones that are subject to tasking in those circumstances.

Senator HUMPHRIES: It is basically only boats or ships that are already in the vicinity. Whether they are commercial vessels or scientific vessels, they are the ones tasked with assisting in a rescue?

Mr Mundy : These are very remote areas, so whichever are the most expedient assets to get to the site and deal with it quickly will be the ones that AMSA will, I would imagine, look to deploy.

Dr Fleming : But it is not just Australian assets. These are international waters and there is a very international community in Antarctica. So it might be a US vessel, a Chinese vessel, a Russian vessel or an Australian vessel called on.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Sure. I have a question about the reduction you anticipate in international research collaboration because of the budget cut. What does that entail?

Dr Fleming : It is the same thing that I talked about earlier. We are refocusing our science program and we are doing fewer but more significant science projects. We are not reducing our international collaboration, but we will—

Senator HUMPHRIES: But you will make a saving by reconfiguring it, won't you?

Dr Fleming : Yes, we will make a little bit of a saving, but saving is not the motivation. We just want to refocus our science program to make sure that it fits with government policies and priorities and that we are doing really good science thoroughly rather than doing a whole lot of science inadequately. It is not motivated by saving dollars. As I think Richard Rowe mentioned, during the Antarctic Treaty meeting I signed agreements with my counterparts in China, Russia and France about collaboration on both operations and science. We are in fact looking to increase our international collaboration on science projects and that will not be measured by the number of projects. The quality of the projects is what we are after.

Senator HUMPHRIES: In reducing the number of scientists active in Antarctica, from 90 this year to 80 next year, are particular lines of research that are currently being undertaken going to be discontinued?

Dr Fleming : Yes. I can give you details on notice, but what we have done is introduced the Antarctic Science Strategic Plan 2011-2021. That realigns our science. We have gone out to the scientific community to request projects that we will be able to support. We have just made decisions on those projects. I am happy to provide you quite son with the list of projects that we will support in the coming summer.

Senator HUMPHRIES: That is all I want to ask. Thank you very much indeed.

CHAIR: We have had a bit of a discussion about the Aurora Australis. We might place some further brief questions on notice about some of the other facilities and their adequacy in the long term, as well as some about the objectives of the program and some other questions about the treaty. Thank you all for your knowledge and wisdom which you have shared with us this afternoon.

Resolved (on motion by Senator Humphries):

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the proof of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 13:42