Australia shores up Antarctic stronghold

Australia will fork out hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to ensure the nation remains leader of the global pack when it comes to Antarctic involvement.

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The federal government on Wednesday announced a decade-long plan underpinned by a $255 million pledge which in combination with a new icebreaker vessel represents Australia’s greatest investment in Antarctic research, Environment Minister Greg Hunt said.

“There is increasing interest in the Antarctic and what this (plan) does is it not just preserves our base, but it actually gives us the platforms and the credibility to increase our influence over Antarctic research (and) to protect (Australia’s territory),” the minister said.

Australia’s interest in the frozen continent, over which it holds a 42 per cent claim, stretches from its role as environmental custodian, to scientific research, national security and economic benefit.

The plan includes making Hobart the global gateway to Antarctica and negotiating with international partners who can use Australia’s proximity, infrastructure and resources to reach and remain down south.

The funding will see $200 million channelled to the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) to support its ongoing programs, while the remainder will go toward infrastructure including multi-terrain vehicles capable of spending prolonged periods on snow and ice.

The investment supports an ambitious new strategy, AAD director Nick Gales said.

“International interest in Antarctica is growing rapidly and our reasons for being there, for being a leader in Antarctica, have never been more relevant than they are (now).

“If Australia stepped back from its engagement in Antarctica our influence would wane and the things which are a government priority … would be more at risk.”

One such threat is a proposal by some countries to conduct mining experiments in Antarctica, a move opposed by Australia.

The government’s plan received immediate endorsement from key stakeholders including Antarctic climate and ecosystems professor Tony Press, who said the investment will significantly contribute to Australia’s efforts in Antarctica.

However Australian Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said the plan is light on detail and the financial commitment could be a bluff.

“The current funding allocation towards the AAD over the forward estimates drops from around $115 million per annum to $90 million per annum,” Senator Whish-Wilson said.

“Any funding put forward by the minister may merely be to restore what was taken away by previous budgets.”

Mr Hunt defended the funding announcement for the AAD while the CSIRO is being forced to cut 275 scientist jobs due to a lack of money.

“What we’re doing is building Hobart and Australia as the great climate science and Antarctic destination and when you put it all together what you see is a very significant advance in overall scientific support,” the minister said.