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Mining in Antarctica: split in Cabinet over whether Australia should be a signatory to the Mining Convention or should oppose mining outright

PETER THOMPSON: In Canberra, the Prime Minister was given a strong message last night from the mining industry not to close the door to mining in Antarctica. In a speech to the Mining Industry Council, Mr Hawke warned of the dangers of mining and said the Government's objective is to protect the unique environment of Antarctica but, as Heather Ewart reports, Mr Hawke is still to declare his hand on whether the Government should sign the Antarctic Minerals Convention, to open the way for mining exploration under rigid environmental guidelines.

HEATHER EWART: This isn't the usual dilemma over environmental considerations versus mining. It's not one party versus one other. It is one party versus seven others - the seven countries who have a claim to the Antarctic. Five of those countries have already signed a convention to allow mining from 1993, but under certain guidelines. Australia and France are holding out on the basis that the guidelines may not be strict enough.

It's an emotive issue which has created very divided views within the Government. The Treasurer, Paul Keating, who this time has an anti-mining approach, has appealed to the Prime Minister to delay any Cabinet decision until the end of June when he's returned from overseas engagements.

The bottom line is that Ministers with divided opinions still don't have any firm solutions to the problem, and that was reflected in the Prime Minister's speech to the Mining Industry Council last night. While he appeared to lean towards environmental considerations and tougher mining guidelines, there was no clear indication of the final stance the Government might adopt.

BOB HAWKE: Mining in Antarctica is most unlikely to benefit the Australian mining industry, owing to its adverse effects on world mineral prices and, correspondingly, on the profitability of Australian mineral developments, both in Australia and overseas. Certainly, subsidised mining cannot be in the interests of the Australian mining industry as AMIC itself has recognised.

My Government has fought subsidies wherever they have arisen. The prospect of subsidised mining in the Antarctic represents a direct threat to the unique and fragile Antarctic environment. They've all witnessed from, the Alaskan oil spill, the appalling damage that can be done to that sort of environment from unregulated activity. Considered judgements have to be made about the course of action that Australia can take which is most likely to result in the preservation of the Antarctic environment.

HEATHER EWART: Mining representatives will readily admit there's no great interest in mining the Antarctic anyway, but after listening politely to the Prime Minister's push on the environment last night, their closing message was the door had to be left open for mining exploration. Executive Director of the Australian Mining Industry Council, Lachlan MacIntosh.

LACHLAN MacINTOSH: Well, we believe the Government should sign. There's been a lot of work undertaken over many years and, whilst we may not agree with the full extent of what's been agreed to, we believe there is an opportunity now to continue the argument by signing, or continue the agreement. It's not likely many people are going to run down to Antarctica tomorrow to mine, but we must be looking for minerals that may be of value to the rest of the world. They mightn't be large quantities; they might only be very small quantities, and we shouldn't just close all options of by saying: Let's not sign.

PETER THOMPSON: Lachlan MacIntosh of the Australian Mining Industry Council.