LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: … the Australian Federal Opposition has written a third letter to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, about whaling in the Southern Ocean. It wants the Australian Government to send a Customs vessel to monitor any fights between protesters and the Japanese fleet. The Government has consistently said that sending a boat would achieve nothing and would waste Customs resources. Well, Simon Birmingham is a Federal Opposition Senator from South Australia and he told me the lack of action is unacceptable.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We’ve seen some real incidents, over the last few years during the whaling season, between the Sea Shepherd group and the Japanese whaling fleet that really have posed risks to life, risks to the environment in terms of potential for spillage or other types of damage occurring and many disputes as to what has actually happened out there on the seas during these conflicts and we think the Australian Government, rather than sitting back and taking no action, should ensure that there are some independent eyes on the seas out there watching what’s happening and trying to ensure that no harm comes to anybody in these unfortunate circumstances.
LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: The Government’s saying that it would achieve nothing and waste Customs resources. You obviously don’t agree?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the Government has, of course, sent its purpose-built Southern Ocean vessel down to monitor Japanese whaling activities previously. Back in 2008-9, I think it was, we saw the Ocean Protector despatched as a purpose-built boat for the Antarctic conditions. It should be sent down there. It would provide, firstly, the opportunity to see exactly what the Japanese are doing and to have further evidence for the looming international criminal court action that the Government has launched against Japan but also, of course, it would be able to ensure that both, hopefully, the Japanese fleet and the Sea Shepherd group behave responsibly and within international maritime laws and didn’t put life or the environment in further danger.
LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: But the Government is taking some action, though. As you mentioned, there is that looming court case.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There is the court case but this is a court case that is taking years to proceed. This is action the Government promised some years ago. The pathway is very slow. Written statements have been lodged and perhaps there will be some oral hearings hopefully sometime this year but, as with so many of the things this Government’s said and done about whaling, the hopes as to where it will go remain at least a distant prospect. We’ve seen the Government spend millions of dollars initially on a whaling envoy. That’s someone who travelled the globe at great expense but ultimately achieved nothing in terms of this battle so I hope that the court action proves to be different but, certainly in the interim as the Japanese fleet is now sailing towards those Antarctic waters, we shouldn’t just be turning a blind eye. We should be ensuring that we have independent eyes on the ground in the seas there to ensure that nothing adverse happens environmentally, to the people there, and that we have a complete and accurate record of what the Japanese fleet is up to.
LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: So the Opposition wouldn’t have any hesitation in sending a boat out if they were in government?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No – Greg Hunt as our Environment Shadow Minister has given a clear commitment that that is what we would do. As I said, there’s a purpose-built southern Antarctic Customs vessel. We think that, as has happened in the past, it could serve a very important purpose during this whaling season that the Japanese embark upon.
LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: How long would you propose it stay out there – for the entire season?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The season is of a finite period and so we think that, as long as both groups – the Sea Shepherd environmental group and the Japanese fleet – are there and there is the potential for conflict and there is the potential for environmental damage through spillage or the like or the potential for loss of life or harm to life through the types of conflict that we’ve seen in the past, then yes, there’s a good reason for Australia to make sure that, in our maritime search and rescue zone, we should have action or the capability there to respond quickly.
LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: The former Greens Leader Bob Brown joined the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd just yesterday. He’s always been a very vocal supporter of doing more to stop Japanese whaling. Would you consider having a chat with him about it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, I’d be interested to hear what Dr Brown thinks on this matter. I would hope that he would support this call from the Coalition, that he would think it makes sense to have independent Australian eyes there taking down the evidence, making sure we’re fully aware of all that the Japanese fleet are up to and ensuring that no harm comes either to the Sea Shepherd activists or, indeed, to the Japanese whaling fleet either.
LAURA TCHILINGUIRIAN: Liberal Senator for South Australia Simon Birmingham, speaking to me earlier.