Why it’s so important to fund the Australian Antarctic Division — Government Funding Cuts Matters of Public Interest

I’m in a minority here as I’m not one of the Tasmanian speakers who has addressed this issue. But I also rise to speak with some concern about maintaining an appropriate focus on and investment in our Antarctic endeavours—and, importantly, a clear statement of intent in terms of our investment.

Many others have spoken during this debate about the science, so I’m not going to go to the science.

However, I do want to highlight the importance of the Antarctic Treaty System in keeping the Antarctic region and its oceans free from militarisation and exploitation of resources, things which are critical to Australia’s national security as well as to the fish stocks and other mammals that feed on those fish in the southern oceans.

The Labor Party and the members here claim there are no cuts. If they wish to use that terminology that’s fine, but we know from the emails from the leadership of the Australian Antarctic Division that they are having to manage with $25 million less.

Don’t call it a cut if you prefer not to, but the division has $25 million less to pursue its programs.

That reminds me of the precedent we’ve seen in areas affecting national security, including the Defence budget this year, where there was a lot of discussion about the urgency and the agreement of the 2020Defence Strategic Update. Yet when independent observers such as ASPI, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute—who have long done well-respected, independent analyses of the Defence budget—looked at the papers they said that there has actually been a $1.5 billion cut over the next three years in the Defence budget.

So the Labor government can say one thing, yet independent experts, whether it be the head of AAD or ASPI, look at their budgeting and say that the agencies concerned have less money to do their job with. In Defence’s case it’s because the inflationary pressures around the cost of operating Defence continue to go up. So in real terms the ASPI assessment is correct in that Defence has $1.5 billion less to do the vital job of protecting Australia’s national interests.

The significance of the investment and the work in the Antarctic is that when the whole treaty system is up for renegotiation—of which Australia is a founding member and a major player, with a claim of 42 per cent over the Antarctic continent—the amount of investment and activity on the continent will be a critical factor in determining the validity and strength of those claims.

That’s why the Australian Antarctic strategy and the 20-year action plan, which was released last year in 2022, call to expand the logistical capabilities and critical research in the Antarctic ice sheet, to lead new research so as to improve our understanding, to fund new capabilities in infrastructure and to continue working closely with other Antarctic nations through the Antarctic Treaty System.

If the head of the Australian Antarctic Division is flagging that they have $25 million less then clearly those objectives will not be not met.

Contrary to the assertions of those opposite, under the former government there was some $800 million provided over 10 years to strengthen scientific and strategic capabilities for Antarctic work.

Some of those measures included $136 million to support Australia’s inland traverse capability, critical charting activities and mobile stations as well as other core activities of the division. There was $109 million to increase aerial and inland capabilities and $44 million for additional shipping to support the RSV Nuyina to focus on extended science, as well as, as part of our inland capability, $35 million for medium-lift helicopters—which, as a former professional helicopter pilot, I think is a wonderful investment.

It highlights the fact that the coalition put its money where its mouth was and invested in those enabling capabilities that secure our long-term position in the international community in this critical continent.