Mark Corcoran is presenter of ABC TV's Foreign Correspondent program.

One of the more modest funding increases to slip under the radar of last week’s federal budget was a 10% top up for the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) to run Australia’s Antarctic bases. The extra  $25.2 million over the next two years will lift the AAD’s annual budget to $114 million. The AAD will also receive separate additional funding of $11.7 million to continue its new Airlink service from Hobart to Casey Station.

Antarctic Division boss, Environment Minister Peter Garrett, is also known to have instructed his Department to re-assess exactly what Australia should be doing on the ice.

Several Antarctic Division insiders have attributed the budget increase – the first real funding boost for the AAD in more than a decade – to our Foreign Correspondent report, Antarctica – What Lies Beneath, broadcast on ABC1 on 3 March this year, as the vessel that finally broke through the political pack ice.

We ventured south to Australia’s Casey Station (above), and questioned the Australian Government’s commitment to global climate research and lack of strategic policy direction in Antarctica. We also reported on China’s huge expedition (below) earlier this year to build a base (without Canberra’s permission) on the highest and coldest point on Australian Antarctic Territory (Australia claims 42% of the continent).  

To date, debate in Australia on the strategic implications of this vast territory has largely been as silent as the great continent itself. Last year,  in the research phase for our trip south, I did the usual rounds of the strategic/defence/intelligence policy community, but when asking for meaningful background or analysis I was met with blank looks, or long uncomfortable pauses on the phone.

It seems Antarctica – and the future of the 42% chunk claimed by Australia – has long been a boutique policy issue, one for the staff of the AAD who simply get on with it, or for scientists to debate among themselves at specialist conferences. It’s a problem for a few overworked desk officers to ponder – on a part-time basis on top of all their other duties – in far flung corners of the federal bureaucracy.

The same AAD insiders told me that their only significant achievement in recent times was the establishment of the air link between Hobart and Casey Station. During the short Antarctic summer, a modified Airbus now flies weekly missions to an ice runway built atop a blue ice glacier.  A two-week sea voyage was replaced by a 4-hour flight.

The Airlink has proved a huge logistical boost, but the big question remains: what exactly should Australian expeditioners now be doing once they step off the plane?

AAD staff claim their lobbying efforts around Canberra in recent years have achieved little, apart from a line up of backbenchers keen to join fact-finding adventures to the ice, who return with amazing happy snaps, but very little in the way of political clout on the key issues.

When Governor-General Sir Michael Jeffrey officially opened Prime Minister Rudd’s 2020 Summit, he did so dramatically brandishing an 80,000 year-old ice core extracted from Australia’s Antarctic Territory as a way of illustrating how the key to our climate future is locked up in past records in the ice. While the collective brains trust obviously enjoyed the show, Antarctica was effectively ignored in the Summit's recommendations and conclusions.

The notable exception to this indifference was  the report, 'Frozen Assets: Securing Australia’s Antarctic Future', by Anthony Bergin of ASPI and Marcus Haward of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre.

Now there’s an extra $25.2 million over two years. When you consider the billions being thrown at defence to counter any potential Chinese 'peril' — as opposed to the China’s very real expanding presence on the ice, which seems to be more about nationalism and flag planting than any immediate security threat — perhaps the Australian Antarctic Division could have done better.

Photos by the author.