Minister Ley interview with Michael McLaren, 2GB

19 October 2021

MICHAEL MCLAREN: Well, whilst nobody technically owns parts of Antarctica, Australia does claim the largest percentage of the continent with roughly 40 per cent, or put another way, about six million square kilometres designated the Australian Antarctic Territory. Now, the area has been in Australian guardianship, I think that’s probably the best way we can say it, since 1933. It was transferred by the British at that point.
Now, that’s not to say the whole world recognises our sovereignty over this sizeable chunk of the east of Antarctica. In fact, only four other nations do and they’re New Zealand, France, Norway, and, as you can appreciate, the United Kingdom. But more about all of that in a moment. But as far as Australia is concerned, our main interest in the frozen continent has always been scientific. And from the great expeditions of Douglas Mawson through to the present day, Australians have been central to the unlocking of key scientific and geological information stored within Antarctica’s challenging environment. 
And so, on Saturday that tradition embraced its latest chapter, and a rather exciting one too, with the arrival in Hobart of the RSV Nuyina - I think that’s how you pronounce it - a state of the art, Romanian built, half billion-dollar icebreaker replete with even more gadgets than the latest Bond movie. 
Now, our Environment Minister is Sussan Ley and she said of the purchase of this magnificent vessel, it’s sending a clear signal about our Antarctic commitment and our ongoing ambition and our determination to preserve those values that are in the Antarctic Treaty. And I’m glad to say the Minister joins us on the program. Sussan Ley, good morning to you.

SUSSAN LEY: Good morning. Lovely to be with you, Michael. 

MICHAEL MCLAREN: Yes, it is. And it’s sort of opportune isn’t it? Because earlier this year, I think it was about 23 June from memory, we recognised the 60th anniversary of that Antarctic Treaty, and here we are still the forefront of scientific research there. 

SUSSAN LEY: That’s right. It’s the year of anniversaries. It's 30 years of the Madrid Protocol and, can you believe it, 30 years ago, countries were deciding how to divide up the spoils and mine Antarctica… and, you know, New Zealand was leading the charge, actually. It was Australia who said both from government and from opposition, actually, we don't think we should do this, and that was locked in 30 years ago. And now the thought of mining Antarctica to the, you know, the like-minded countries in the Treaty system, it's anathema - we wouldn't do it. So we're celebrating that, but we're celebrating so much more. And you mentioned, Michael, this amazing ship, the Nuyina, which is an indigenous word for Southern Lights. And she's arrived in Hobart, and I wish I could have been there. In fact, no one was really there because Hobart was in lockdown due to COVID.


SUSSAN LEY: But she's going to be there for a few weeks and there'll be an opportunity for people to see her. And when all the commissioning is complete, I hope to actually be shown through the vessel. 

MICHAEL MCLAREN: Now, it replaces a vessel we've had for 30 years, the Aurora Australis, and that's been a workhorse, but I suppose it's time has come and gone. But his Romanian piece of kit has something special, isn't it?
SUSSAN LEY: Something special? One hundred sixty metres long. She can cope with 14-metre-high waves - that's sea state nine for all sailors - I don't think you get much higher than that. Cut through ice 1.65 metres thick. Deal with a hurricane gale, and absolutely cope with patrolling that long coastline that you mentioned in our 42 per cent of Antarctica. So, of course, we don't own it, but we're stewards over it…


SUSSAN LEY: …and we've got our four stations. But we don't have so much inland capability, we're starting to do that. We're going to drill- well, we're about to drill a million-year ice core, but the Nuyina will be critical in just covering the distance and she can actually- she's got helicopter decks, helicopters could leave the deck of the Nuyina and drop supplies and, you know, there could be drones that are doing monitoring and science. It is all about science and protection of the environment.

MICHAEL MCLAREN: That's the focus. You mentioned the helicopters and the difficulties of obviously approaching the interior of it. It's never been easy, I mean, you know, the legacy of Mawson proves that, as I mentioned earlier. But with the, with the ability to have helicopters land on the deck of this vessel and come and go, that does extend our access and depth into our Antarctic territory, doesn't it?

SUSSAN LEY: It does. We've never had medium lift helicopter capability before, so this would be the first time. We can transport our expeditioners and our equipment further and safer than before. The Nuyina can be at sea for 92 days and, as I said, patrol a huge amount of coastline, and really support the Antarctic science that is world leading. I know that rolls off the tongue really easily, but it, but it is. Our- The work we do in East Antarctica is internationally recognised, whether it would be studying the marine ecosystems; the krill in the ocean; or whether it be the million-year ice core that we're drilling that will reveal the changes in the climate a million years ago and help unlock the secrets of climate change now and into the future; or just the work that our Antarctic scientists do on the International Panel for Climate Change. So they, they understand southern climate systems almost better than anyone else. 

So, you know, it's, it’s remarkable what I think we've achieved in Antarctica, and I'm delighted that, that we're making this commitment. It's a $1.9 billion commitment. The ship itself cost about $530 million, but $1.9 billion to operate her, and, and she'll do a great job. But the people, it's the people who always amaze me and what they contribute and what they're prepared to sacrifice. It's not easy. 

MICHAEL MCLAREN: Well, no, it's inhospitable at the best of times, I'd imagine. I'd love to see Antarctica one day because I think it would be very, very special that that basically pristine wilderness, that unspoilt nature of it would be something quite unique and extraordinary. But, obviously, not every nation, we touched on this at the start, didn't we? Not every nation is a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty; not every nation necessarily backs in the Madrid Protocol and what it stands for; and, not every nation obviously recognises Australia's claim to guardianship over this rather sizeable part of the east of the Continent. And one nation, we all know about them as China that are now getting pretty heavy in this part of the world, they see opportunities. How is Australia going to countenance an increased interest by China in Antarctica? 

SUSSAN LEY: Oh, look, there are geostrategic considerations, and I'm sure they're being pondered over. What I can say now is that the countries in what we call CAMLR, which is the Convention of Antarctic Marine Living Resources - so it's when all the countries in the Antarctic Treaty system effectively sit around the table and meet, the short name is CAMLR - is- it's working reasonably well. There are issues, there are disagreements, there are countries that aren't coming on board. And one of the things that I'm pushing really hard is a marine protected area in the East Antarctica, and I really want that to be something that this Government - well, we're already on the front foot with it - but something that we can leave as a legacy to add to our other environmental protection commitments and record if you like. So it's, it's not easy, particularly as I said, in the virtual format that everyone is meeting at the moment. So right now, Michael, this convention is meeting. 
The Chair from Sweden has actually travelled, or is travelling to Hobart, but everyone else will be, effectively, on a screen. And topics for discussion will be fishing limits, krill research and of course, that marine protected area that's so important for Australia and many other countries. 

MICHAEL MCLAREN: How do we, or anybody enforce all of this, though? It- as we’ve seen internationally there are nations now that don't seem to give two hoots about international treaties or even international legal convention. They just say, well, we're going to do what we want - we know who we're talking about here. But I mean, how is this enforced? I mean, you go back, say, 40 or 50 years ago when the British were having trouble with the Argentines and the Chileans down there in Antarctica, they'd send in a gunboat. But I mean, you know, gone are the days of all of that, I would assume. So, you know, with all the goodwill in the world and all the signatures on pieces of paper, let's say an unnamed country decides, you know what? We're going to actually start mining some parts of Antarctica. How are they going to be stopped? 

SUSSAN LEY: Well, anyone choosing that path would have to break away from the Antarctic Treaty system, and those countries are actually in the system - they're in the system now, every country isn't, but they are. And that's not a straightforward or easy thing to do. So while from time to time countries take different points of view within the Antarctic Treaty system, to actually step right outside of it is not something that I could imagine happening in the near future.
Which comes back to our main point, which is it is in that system that is the strength of the whole management, stewardship underpinnings of what, what we do in Antarctica, which is peace, science and protection of the environment. So Australia's position is what you need to achieve, you need to achieve through the Antarctic Treaty system with every country at the table.
Now, take the marine protected areas. I had some individual conversations with environment ministers and some other countries, and we had more co-sponsors join the cause just at this meeting that's happening now in Hobart. Three more countries said yes, we'll co-sponsor the proposal, so building consensus is key. But sometimes it's time consuming, and you know, sometimes you don't always get what you want when you want. But that's the approach that Australia will take, because it is our strength and it is the strength of the decision making - always has been. 

MICHAEL MCLAREN: Just before you go, Sussan, just one final question. There, there will be some people listening saying, well look, okay, we've got this claim, let's say over 40 per cent of Antarctica. It's a massive landmass, six odd million square kilometres. But there will be some saying, Well, why bother? What's the answer to that from, from a Government Minister? Why should we bother in trying to protect, preserve, control, administer whatever you want to say, such a big chunk of a continent that's- basically we will never inhabit.

SUSSAN LEY: Because it is the Earth's last great wilderness, last untouched wilderness. It represents a great deal in terms of pioneering and expeditioning, if you like. But cooperation. So the Treaty system is a model for cooperating for peace, protection of the environment, and you know, and future scientific endeavour. But also because Antarctic science is so important to the world.
The currents from the Southern Ocean that generate a lot of life, a lot of understanding, a lot of response to climate change around the globe and the studies of those Antarctic marine systems, like the krill, are critical to understanding some of the basics of why the oceans support life and how they do, and you know, where their trigger points are for future change, if indeed the ocean - well, we know the oceans are warming, but what the acidification in those oceans might do. So, so the science that that comes from the Southern Ocean, and by definition of Antarctica itself, is absolutely vital for the for the world's future. 
But yes, a lot of people haven't visited, and even if they have, they haven't seen a lot. But you know, we do need to protect the incredible colonies of penguins, the seabirds, the albatrosses, the, the life that's there, even though it's a hostile and frozen continent. 

MICHAEL MCLAREN: Wonderful to talk to you as it is an exciting chapter in our ongoing history with Antarctica. I very much look forward to seeing what comes of this new vessel purchase. I think it's going to be very, very interesting. Wonderful to talk. Sussan, thank you for your time. 

SUSSAN LEY: Thank you so much. 

SUSSAN LEY: Sussan Ley there, the Federal Minister for the Environment.