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TravelGuides – Australia’s decision to scrap Antarctica runway exposes government divisions | Australia news

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TravelGuides – Australia’s decision to scrap Antarctica runway exposes government divisions | Australia news

The Morrison government’s decision to scrap plans to build a 2.7km concrete runway on Antarctica has opened a new round of Coalition divisions, with China hawks blasting the “retrograde” move.

The Tasmanian Liberal party senator Eric Abetz criticised the decision, labelling it a “huge disappointment” as Australia risked loosening “our foothold” on Antarctica to China and Russia.

The final parliamentary sitting fortnight of the year has been marked by government divisions, with a number of backbenchers either voicing dissent or crossing the floor on issues ranging from a strong integrity commission to vaccine mandates to religious discrimination.

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The latest flashpoint is Liberal environment minister Sussan Ley’s announcement the government would “protect Antarctica’s pristine wilderness by not proceeding with a decision to build a 2,700m concrete runway at Australia’s Davis research station”.

Environmental scientists had argued the multi-billion-dollar plan was a waste of money, and could lead to a destructive construction race among territorial rivals.

There were also concerns the new airport and runway would increase the human footprint in the world’s greatest wilderness by an estimated 40% and impact on penguin colonies.

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Ley said she had weighed up the costs, potential environmental impacts, and the complexity of a 20-year construction process “in an extreme and sensitive environment”.

Ley portrayed her decision not to proceed as a signal to other countries about “Australia’s commitment to due process and robust environmental assessment” – and called on other countries to similarly respect the Antarctic environment.

“All nations need to place the Antarctic environment at the absolute centre of decision making and respect the treaty system,” she said on Thursday morning.

But within an hour of the announcement, Abetz said the “overwhelming strategic and capability support the runway would have provided has been regrettably lost”.

“As it appears, this is a final decision – and a retrograde decision at that, the task is to ensure that the funding predicated for the runway is made fully available for other Antarctic capabilities,” Abetz said.

“Tasmania’s world-renowned reputation as the gateway to the Antarctic will be questioned, as will our commitment unless there is a strong, unequivocal announcement of the preservation of the funding and the new focus of investment.”

Abetz said Australia needed to “invest in other strategic and capability support infrastructure to ensure the international community cannot doubt our commitment to Antarctica”.

“At a time when China and Russia are rapidly expanding their footprints on the ice continent, it is absolutely essential that we don’t loosen our foothold,” Abetz said.

The NSW Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, another China hawk, said: “In the face of growing Chinese and Russian assertiveness in Antarctica, this is a backward step.”

She added: “I agree with senator Abetz that we should not be loosening our foothold when these powers are expanding their footprints.”

The comments come amid debate about how Australia should pursue concerns about China’s interest in resource exploration in the Antarctic.

Claire Young, a former senior analyst with Australia’s Office of National Intelligence covering Antarctica, wrote in a recent policy brief that China “wants to benefit economically, and potentially militarily, from Antarctica”.

Young’s paper, published by the Lowy Institute, said China was increasingly assertive in the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), primarily over fisheries access, and was active on the ice.

She said the treaty required Antarctica be used only for peaceful, scientific purposes, and “freezes” challenges to Australia’s claim of the Australian Antarctic Territory – the largest of the seven claims, at about 42% of the continent.

The scrapping of the runway project will not be the final word, according to Ley, who says the government is now looking at alternative options for expanding Australia’s wider Antarctic program capability.

Ley said the government would make announcements in the “near future” about further investment “to bolster Australia’s scientific and environmental interests in Antarctica”.

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Last month Australia took delivery of its new Antarctic icebreaker from the Netherlands, the RSV Nuyina. The vessel, which is to be docked in Hobart, is capable of mapping the ocean floor to a depth of 11,000 metres and will act as a “floating laboratory” to monitor ocean and marine ecosystem health.

Despite frosty relations between China and Australia, the two countries collaborated on a mission to medically evacuate an Australian expeditioner from Antarctica late last year, with help from the United States.

The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, has also suggested Australia and France could begin to repair their diplomatic rift by cooperating on shared interests such as Antarctica.

TravelGuides – Australia’s decision to scrap Antarctica runway exposes government divisions | Australia news

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