Antarctica is no place for politicking

david-day-thumb Dr David Day


First published in The Age on 19 January, 2012.

The recent ceremony carried out at Mawson's huts, when the Australian flag was raised and a plaque placed on a nearby hill, was just the latest piece of political theatre to be staged in Antarctica.

For more than a century, flags have been raised on the ice or dropped from aircraft, while proclamations have been either read out to audiences of penguins and seals or similarly dropped from on high.

The Germans even dropped Nazi insignia attached to heavy javelins, so they would stand when they hit the ice. From Mawson in 1912 to Monday's ceremony, it has all been done in the name of territorial acquisition and retention, with science acting as a cover.

A century ago, when Douglas Mawson went south with the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, science was the supposed purpose. According to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, ''Mawson and his colleagues undertook their epic journey . . . to advance the cause of science.''

In fact, science was far from the most important motive for Mawson's expedition. As he explained at the time, the expedition would bring Australia to the world's attention and invest it with ''the prestige [that comes from] being strong enough to investigate and claim new territory''. And it had to be done quickly, before ''foreign nations … step in and secure this most valuable portion of the Antarctic continent for themselves''.

It was a compelling argument for the Labor government of Andrew Fisher. A Japanese army officer was even then leading an expedition to claim part of the Antarctic for his emperor and a Prussian military officer was doing likewise for the German kaiser. It was the presence of the Japanese and Germans, not science, that helped clinch a sizeable contribution for Mawson's expedition from Fisher's government, which was adamant that no potentially hostile power should control the Antarctic coastline to its south.

As soon as Mawson had erected his huts at what he named Commonwealth Bay, he gathered his companions together on a nearby hill for a formal ceremony on January 30, 1912. Curiously, the ritual received no mention during the commemoration this week.

British and Australian flags were raised in the 1912 ceremony, and surrounding territory was claimed in the name of the king. No matter that Mawson had been unable to persuade the British to give him the authority to make such a claim.

It was the beginning of a lifelong campaign by Mawson to claim all of what he called the Australian sector. He went back there in 1929-31, during which he made two long voyages along the Antarctic coast with an aircraft lashed to the deck of his small ship. This time he had authority from Britain to claim territory and went at it with a will, either by dropping proclamations from his aircraft or depositing them on shore under a cairn. When he was unable to land, he simply threw them ashore from a small boat.

At the time, Mawson was engaged in a furious race with Norwegian whaler Lars Christensen, who wanted to claim the same sector on behalf of his king. Although the Norwegians preceded Mawson in several places, the Norwegian government buckled to pressure from the British not to annex any territory within the Australian sector.

Following these voyages, Australia finally moved in 1933 to annex the territory along which Mawson had sailed.

The Australian claim was later found to comprise 42 per cent of the entire continent. And it had all been done without Mawson having seen more than a small fraction of it. Although it was now marked on maps as Australian Antarctic Territory, successive Australian governments did little to reinforce their ownership.

Indeed, it was more than 20 years before any other Australians returned to its shores, after Mawson's continuing campaign led to establishment of the first Australian base.

By that time, Australia's title to its territory was most tenuous, with both the US and Russia establishing bases on the supposed Australian territory.

Mawson's campaign was motivated by the assumption Antarctica harboured resources of value to Australia and to himself personally. First, he had been excited by the discovery of coal seams, and he thought gold and copper might also be present in large quantities.

There were also whales and seals, which Mawson hoped to exploit on his own account. But nothing came of it. Neither did the Antarctic come to have the strategic significance for Australia that Mawson and others had predicted.

Yet Australia persists with its claim to 42 per cent of the continent and engages in continuing acts of political theatre to reinforce it. Although the Antarctic Treaty supposedly ended the jostling for territory, the nations with historic territorial claims continue to vie with nations that harbour territorial aspirations.

It is an uneasy equilibrium that has the potential to boil over into conflict. Australia should use the current calm to develop a post-treaty future for Antarctica in which scientific co-operation and environmental protection really are paramount, and territorial claims have no place at all.

David Day is an honorary research associate at La Trobe University, and author of a biography of Andrew Fisher. His history of Antarctica will be published by Random House in August.