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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

Speech to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty

Old Parliament House, Canberra
2 December 2009

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I acknowledge the traditional owners past and present on whose land we meet today - The Ngunnawal and Ngambri people.

Your excellencies, Professor Boyce, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a great pleasure to be here to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty.

This event provides an important opportunity to highlight not only Australias role in the negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty, and the continuing development of the Treaty System, but also the importance of our continuing commitment to its strength and effectiveness.

But firstly, some words from Sir Douglas Mawson about the importance of Antarctic discovery and exploration.

Bound up in the mystery of this seventh continent are volumes of data of vital importance to science, and economic problems which may become of moment in the near future.

The polar regions, like any other part of the globe may be said to be paved with facts, the essence of which it is necessary to acquire before knowledge of this special zone can be brought to even a provisional exactitude.

If we ignore the facts contained in one part of the world, surely we are hampering scientific advance.

Mawson would be pleased that Antarctic science and discovery is still alive and well, and much credit should be given to the enduring effectiveness of the Antarctic Treaty which allows this valuable endeavour to continue.

I saw this work first-hand in January of last year, when I had the privilege of travelling with our Antarctic scientists aboard the inaugural Australian passenger flight to Antarctica, landing on the blue ice of Wilkins runway in the dawn light - what a sight.

After the flight I was acutely aware that I had avoided the infamous ride across the Southern Ocean, but that now we can fly scientists and other Antarctic personnel to Antarctica in a matter of hours, rather than 10 or more days by ship, and that this would open up a whole new chapter in our scientific effort on the frozen continent.

These efforts are of particular importance given the issues debated before the Parliament this week. Antarctica is a climate laboratory, and the Southern Ocean is an important driver of the global climate.

The recently released Southern Ocean Sentinel indicated that due to a warming climate, marine ecosystems both near to Antarctica and in the subantarctic, are already feeling the effects. Including:

And as well scientists have identified a number of ecosystem components that may be vulnerable to ongoing climate change impacts including through ocean acidification. Including:

I doubt whether Mawson would have been surprised at the level of importance and relevance of Antarctic science in the current global climate change discussions. I know that Dr Ian Allison from our own Antarctic Division is an author on a climate change analysis document that will be available for Copenhagen delegates.

The two continents histories are intertwined with Australias links to Antarctica extending way back to Captain James Cooks voyages of the late 1770s, during which he sailed a refurbished collier, the thirty-three metre Resolution, well south of sixty degrees south the latitude that now defines the limits of the Antarctic Treaty.

Mawsons claiming in the 1930s of what was to become the Australian Antarctic Territory set the stage for Australias post-war re-engagement in Antarctica through the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions and the establishment of the Australian Antarctic Division.

But the contemporary state of Antarctic affairs has as much to do with politics and diplomacy as it does with sled dogs, glaciers, pack-ice and blizzards.

Our first tentative steps towards a permanent presence in Antarctica began in the 1950s, and culminated later that decade with the massive collaborative science programs of the International Geophysical Year.

Today we talk factually about the Antarctic being a global climate laboratory particularly the Southern Ocean which is a core driver of our climate but the beginnings of this thinking came through the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58 when the Antarctic was recognized as a region of profound interest and unique characteristics.

The Antarctic was seen to have the potential to provide insights into the impact of its huge ice mass on global weather and oceans, and much new knowledge of the Antarctic ice sheet was gained from drilling ice cores and from traverses deep into the interior of the continent.

This hugely successful international program led directly to the eventual formulation and success of the Antarctic Treaty which opened for signature in Washington on 1 December 1959.

Expressed so briefly, it can seem almost dismissive. But the diplomatic efforts required to bring together the diverse interests of claimant and non-claimant nations - at the height of the cold war - were complex and arduous.

It is of great credit to the negotiators, the drafters, and the leaders of those nations involved that we have the short and elegant document that is the Antarctic Treaty a treaty that endures strongly to this day, and a treaty that binds the governments of over seventy-five percent of the worlds population and a treaty that is arguably one of the worlds most successful disarmament agreements.

Fifty years on, as we celebrate this major Treaty milestone, we have just witnessed another major international collaborative effort which saw huge advances in polar science.

The International Polar Year 2007-2009 brought together thousands of scientists from 60 nations investigating a wide range of physical, biological and social research topics in the Antarctic and the Arctic.

Australian scientists participated in 72 of the International Polar Year projects, leading eight and co-leading three. Dr Ian Allison from the Australian Antarctic Division was Co-Chair of the Joint Committee.

In addition to a new ten-year Antarctic Science Strategy, we are developing a decadal plan for Australias Antarctic infrastructure and capability. I look forward to sharing with you more detail of that exciting new agenda as these Strategies are finalised.

Our new Antarctic airlink is attracting increasing interest from other nations. This summer will see collaboration with the United States, the French, Italians and the Chinese. It is my strong view that sharing of Antarctic assets is the way of the future, increasing opportunities for co operation and rationing the impact on the fragile environment of this extraordinary icy continent.

Largely through its annual consultative meetings, the Antarctic Treaty provides security and stability to an enormous and increasingly significant area of the globe. It provides the framework in which issues of global and regional concern can be constructively and collaboratively worked through and it sets an example to the way we might manage complex multi-national issues elsewhere on the planet.

The Antarctic Treaty has spawned conventions on the Conservation of Antarctic seals and Antarctic marine living resources (CAMLR), a highly protective environmental protocol, and an agreement to conserve albatross and petrels. These instruments together mark a magnificent achievement in conservation, and provide a compelling example of what nations can achieve when they work together.

And attending a special ministerial summit in Washington to note the 50th anniversary as part of the thirty-second Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting earlier this year, and I was pleased to note the substantial acknowledgment of the importance of this unique collaboration.

So today we commemorate not just the opening for signature of the Antarctic Treaty but the start of a globally representative and truly remarkable governance regime for the Antarctic region.

I am pleased to join with you all in celebrating this significant milestone.

Thankyou

[ENDS]

Commonwealth of Australia