There is a common saying among those involved in the politics of Antarctica: “Science is the currency of influence”. It succinctly explains why Australia has traditionally played a central role on the frozen continent. Indeed, the country has one of the world’s most respected polar-research programmes and claims a territory that makes up 42 per cent of Antarctica.
Prime minister Tony Abbott’s first budget has further cemented Australia’s standing in the region by putting money aside for the purchase of a new ice-breaker and upgrades to Hobart Airport that will support more flights to the area. It is the “largest ever commitment to Australia’s Antarctic programme”, claims environment minister Greg Hunt.
Scientists, though, are not so enthusiastic. They argue that the benefits of this new infrastructure could be undone by continuing staff cuts. The Australian Antarctic Division was last year forced to shed 27 of its workers and the government has already hinted that there could be more redundancies in 2014. “Many of the jobs that are at risk involve very experienced Antarctic scientists,” says Dr Will Howard, deputy chair of the National Committee for Antarctic Research at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra. “That is expertise that will take a long time to build back up if we lose it.”
The concerns come at a time when more countries are jostling for influence in Antarctica, which is governed by treaties that prevents commercial mining and military activity. China recently unveiled a fourth Antarctic base and Iran has announced plans to send a research team to the South Pole in “the near future”. “As the need for resources increases, how long will the environmental protocols hold?” asks Neil Hamilton, managing director of Quaternary Research, an Australian consultancy specialising in polar issues. “Australia has a responsibility to be central in that debate.”
Tasmania, one of Australia’s poorest states, has historically struggled to harness the trading potential of Asia’s booming economies. Government reports released last year suggested that the island was hindered by a lack of Asian language skills and promotion abroad.
The City of Clarence (pictured), a local council in the state capital of Hobart, has made steps to lure more overseas investment by giving the go-ahead to a new residential suburb that will be marketed to Asians. The Paranville project will include a language school, sporting grounds and accommodation for international students. The South Korean developers behind the proposal have said that Tasmania’s mild climate and negligible risk of nuclear accidents make it particularly appealing to prospective overseas investors. Construction is set to begin by the end of the year.
Q&A- Hieu Van Le
Hieu Van Le’s success story is the product of a more lenient era in Australia’s history with asylum seekers. The Vietnamese refugee endured a Pacific voyage on a leaky fishing boat, landing in Darwin Harbour in 1977. He was resettled and has since emerged as a successful public servant; as of September he becomes governor of South Australia.
What has been the motivation behind your career?
After fleeing Vietnam, to be so warmly welcomed by Australia’s coastguards says everything about this country. Every day I try to pay back the society that gave me a new life.
What are your plans in your new role?
I want to promote trade and cultural exchange between South Australia and the rest of the world, particularly Asia Pacific.
Where does your story fit into the current national debate on asylum seekers?
I don’t want to interfere in the political debate. People can draw many views from my story but it’s a reminder that we all feel obliged to contribute as soon as we can stand on our own two feet.