When Australia’s first Environment Ambassador helped save Antarctica from mining

Australia appointed its first-ever Ambassador for the Environment just over 30 years ago, in 1989.

Taken up by former High Court judge and Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen, the appointment was a surprise to many, including Stephen himself.

It also represented an important juncture in Australian diplomacy with international cooperation on environmental issues, taking on a new emphasis in the nation’s foreign policy. It was a world first, and a pioneering step for recognition of environmental diplomacy within the global community.

When he announced the role, the Prime Minister at the time, Bob Hawke, flagged his vision: for Australia to lead faster international action to preserve the environment and “address forces including global warming induced by the greenhouse effect, the loss of biodiversity, transnational pollution and waste disposal, and the exploitation of the world’s oceans and fisheries”.

He noted the dual purpose of this ambassadorial role, to “give Australia a stronger, clearer voice on global environmental issues … and to have strong consistent capacity to be represented in the increasing rounds of international negotiations and forums that would characterise the nation’s involvement in these issues”.

A ‘special interest ambassador’

The Ambassador for the Environment is a unique role in the international system. It falls into the category of a ‘special interest ambassador’ that is, one who is ‘specially appointed’ to represent the nation on an important international issue.

In Australia’s case, the Ambassador for the Environment was the first special-interest ambassadorial appointment and the only such appointment made in the first hundred years of Federation.

Since 2003, other special-interest policy areas have received similar attention with, for example, ambassadorial appointments made relating to counter-terrorism, human rights and First Nations People.

The challenging and contested nature of climate policy and politics in Australia has been the subject of much scholarly attention, especially over the last decade. However, the specialised role and contribution made by its special ambassador get little attention, particularly in the public mind.

Most Australians are unlikely to know there is such a position, let alone who holds it.

It was important that Australia’s inaugural environment ambassador was an eminent person – someone who brought status and gravitas to the role at home and abroad.

Stephen knew heads of state from his previous roles, not least as the nation’s 20th Governor-General, and could speak directly with them in various global arenas.

“No protection” for Antarctica

Even though Stephen was consumed by an evolving global warming agenda, a more significant issue – the preservation of the Antarctic – demanded his immediate attention.

A US-UK bid for regulated mining in the Antarctic, via a proposed Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activity (CRAMRA) was in play.

For Hawke, it represented a political opportunity for building further support within the Australian constituency. At Hawke’s direction, and to the irritation of some in his Cabinet, Stephen was charged with opposing the proposed CRAMRA and building the necessary diplomatic momentum to secure the pristine Antarctic as a wildlife reserve.

From the outset, it seemed a pessimistic endeavour, given the support already secured for CRAMRA. And it entailed some risk, “if the bid for a wilderness reserve failed, Antarctica might be left with no protection at all against mining”.

Working in tandem with his French counterparts – who, with the advocacy of famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, were like-minded on the issue – Stephen embarked on a major campaign targeting, among others, Chile, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, the European Community, Italy, India and the USSR.

Hawke provided the political heft to ultimately sway American support. In 1991, the parties to the Antarctic Treaty signed up to the Protocol on Environmental Protection (the Madrid Protocol), and CRAMRA never came into force.

A milestone for the inaugural Ambassador for the Environment, it represented a high point for Australian environmental diplomacy and “a pivotal moment” in global environmental conservation.

A change in climate

Stephen’s three-year appointment concluded slightly ahead of schedule in 1992 following his engagement by the British government to chair the second strand of peace talks in Northern Ireland.

From that point the position of Australian environment ambassador transitioned from a political to a public service appointment, attracting career diplomats and seasoned policy-makers into the role.

More than three decades on, there is no doubt the position of Australian environment ambassador (now recast as the Ambassador for Climate Change) faces particular challenges.

Charged with representing the nation’s distinctive national interests in global arenas – recognising the deep economic reliance on commodities – they work with and across myriad stakeholders at home and abroad.

At the same time, they bear the weighty expectations of a global constituency to deliver moral consensus on climate action, including for future generations.

They are confronted – more than their traditional ambassadorial counterparts – by competing political interests, influential industry stakeholders and fluid public opinion – all interacting within the nation’s short-term electoral cycles.

Together, these complex dynamics have fostered a diplomatic approach that moves carefully, with a tendency towards pragmatism and an eye for outcomes based on ‘radical incrementalism’ rather than transformational leaps forward.

This is an edited extract from the chapter ‘An unenviable appointment: Australia’s environment ambassador’ in Climate Politics in Oceania, edited by Susan Harris Rimmer, Caitlin Byrne and Wesley Morgan, and published by Melbourne University Press.

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