4 October 2023
The Albanese Government has serious and urgent questions to answer about the mismanagement of funding for Antarctic science and research, following a series of concerning revelations at the first day of Senate inquiry hearings in Hobart today.
Today’s evidence was headlined by comments from the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) that severe cuts this year to the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) operating budget are “demoralising” and “a kick in the guts” – especially after staff had felt the ‘foot had finally been taken from the back of their necks’ following the former Morrison Government’s $804.4 million boost to Antarctic funding in February 2022.
The CPSU added that they were aware that “at least half a dozen” current AAD employees had felt pressured not to give evidence to the committee. They also testified that the response by Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, to their serial concerns about the current funding arrangements, “wasn’t satisfactory”.
Perhaps most disturbingly of all, the inquiry heard repeated evidence that it is unclear what is now being done with the funding that was inherited from the Coalition, and particularly for the recruitment of at least 40 new employees – and people are “scratching their heads” about how there could possibly now be such shortfalls under Labor.
Indeed, it is worth noting that, by the time the Morrison Government left office, there had been a 112% increase in annual funding to the AAD and other Antarctic measures under the Coalition compared to the Rudd and Gillard governments.
The current Senate inquiry was prompted by the shock revelations in July that the Australian Antarctic Division had informed its staff that it needed to cut $25 million – or around 16% – from its operational budget.
That cut has also been accompanied, in 2023-24, by the first reduction by a Federal Government to the AAD’s annual allocations in close to a decade.
Major concerns were also flagged today about the impact of the cuts on Australia’s international and geopolitical interests. Renowned international law expert, Professor Donald Rothwell, told the committee that the issues being canvassed at the inquiry are inevitably being closely watched and observed globally, and that Australia’s need to play an active role in the Antarctic remains crucial for its sovereignty.