Antarctic program slashed in budget

Australia’s Antarctic program has been cut in the budget. Photo: SuppliedAustralia’s strategic interests in Antarctica are threatened by cuts in the federal budget, the Greens have warned, at a time of growing international spending on the frozen continent.

The Abbott government has slashed the Environment Department’s Australian Antarctic program by 15 per cent to $157 million, and by 26 per cent in later years.

Despite the program cuts, the government delivered on election commitments to maintain Australia’s polar connections, headlined by air link spending, and moves to acquire a new icebreaker.

Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson said the budget cuts jeopardised Australia’s Antarctic strategic interests.

“When presence and science means everything in the Antarctic Treaty, these budget cuts put our sovereignty at risk,” Senator Whish-Wilson said.

They comes as China builds new stations in the Australian Antarctic Territory and the New Zealand claim, while Korea opens a new base and Italy plans for an expanded air operation.

Widespread pre-budget concern over cuts in staff to the science and logistics-focused Australian Antarctic Division were met on Tuesday night with a promise to maintain average staffing levels at 403.

A spokesman for Environment Minister Greg Hunt said: “The AAD will be required to find efficiencies.”

But the spokesman added: “While the Australian Antarctic Division’s funding has decreased, significant investments are being made elsewhere to support the work of AAD and Antarctic research.”

The government met an election commitment to a $24-million Antarctic Gateway Partnership over the next three years between the AAD, University of Tasmania and CSIRO.

The air link from Hobart to the Antarctic gained a guaranteed $11 million per year, and an election promise has been met to provide $38 million for the expansion of Hobart airport to make it useable by large long-haul aircraft, including Antarctic traffic.

The government will also request tenders for an icebreaker, expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, to replace the ageing Aurora Australis.

Former AAD director Tony Press is preparing a 20-year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan for the government.

The departmental budget paper pushed out the plan’s delivery from July to “later in 2014”.

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