Peter Woolcott 

Antarctica matters to Australia and New Zealand. It matters scientifically, environmentally and strategically. It rarely makes headlines and the work there is methodical and considered. This is a good thing – the Antarctica Treaty system has been extraordinarily successful.

There are three pillars to the system: The Treaty itself which devotes Antarctica to peace and science and puts in place principles of governance – effectively demilitarising Antarctica and the Southern Ocean; the Madrid Protocol which designates Antarctica as a natural reserve and bans mining permanently; and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) which provides an ecosystem approach to marine living resources conservation.

We look forward to joining New Zealand and other parties to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Madrid Protocol at the Antarctic Treaty meeting in Chile later this month. There is lingering misconception that the Protocol’s mining ban ‘sunsets’ or ‘expires’. This is not the case. Parties’ commitment is to a permanent ban.

The system has also dealt neatly with competing views on sovereignty. The Antarctic Treaty effectively freezes claims as at 1959. Both Australia and New Zealand are claimants, recognise each other’s claims, and share a land border.

I have not been to Antarctica. I have got close to the issues but unfortunately never set foot there. During my diplomatic career, I have worked on Antarctic issues as head of our then Sea Law and Ocean Policy Section as Australia’s Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission (the killing of whales for so-called scientific research in the Southern Ocean remains a major concern), and most recently as Ambassador for the Environment. I recently went to Christchurch and visited Antarctica New Zealand and met with the very impressive Peter Beggs to discuss New Zealand’s Antarctic priorities.

New Zealand conducts world-leading scientific research to understand and protect the complex environment in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Scott Base, New Zealand’s Antarctic headquarters on Ross Island, has been operating for nearly 60 years. It is part of a network of international bases that make scientific research and collaboration possible in such a hostile environment.

Australian and New Zealand cooperation in Antarctica has a long and proud history dating back to Sir Douglas Mawson’s expedition in 1911. Today, we collaborate on scientific research in the Ross Sea, promote the development of Marine Protected Areas and work together at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ACTM). We are also closely joined up on whaling policy.

There is more we could be doing together particularly around climate science, environmental protection and maintaining the vitality of Antarctic Treaty system. We welcome the expansion of membership which has strengthened the Antarctic Treaty’s legitimacy, and we want to see all Treaty parties also sign on to the Madrid Protocol. We will need to be alert to pressures around future resource exploitation, in particular to the Southern Ocean’s fisheries.

We are both looking to build up the respective strengths of Hobart and Christchurch as gateways to the Antarctica and research hubs. There is more than enough room for both in this space.

The Australian Government recently released Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan. The Government has agreed to:

  • deliver a new world-class research and resupply Antarctic icebreaker;
  • deliver new and stable funding to support and active Australian Antarctic programme;
  • establish Australia’s position of science leadership in Antarctica through:
    • developing modern and flexible structures, including:
      • restoring traverse capabilities and establishing mobile stations in the Antarctic interior
      • further scoping options for expanded aviation capabilities to establish a year-round aviation capability between Hobart and Antarctica
      • progressing options for more efficient and flexible use of existing research stations
    • a revitalised science programme, including: coordinated and effective funding of Antarctic science; opportunities for public-private partnerships to conduct new and iconic scientific endeavours
    • greater collaboration and resource-sharing with other nations active in East Antarctica
  • strengthen the Antarctic Treaty system and our influence in it, by building and maintaining strong and effective relationships with other Antarctic Treaty nations through our international engagement; and
  •  build Tasmania’s status as the premier East Antarctic Gateway for science and operations

New Zealand is a vital partner to Australia in this renewed effort. I see Antarctica as one of the key areas of bilateral cooperation between our two countries, and I’m looking forward to working closely with Antarctica New Zealand, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the rest of New Zealand’s Antarctic community during my time as High Commissioner.

Peter Woolcott is the Australian High Commissioner to New Zealand. To view his biography, please visit:

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