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Think Greenland, think Antarctica

By Colin Chapman

No matter about fake news. What about weird news? President Donald Trump wants to buy Greenland; Hong Kong’s richest man, 91-year old Li Ka-shing snaps up one of Britain’s most loved and ancient breweries for 2.7 billion; Australia’s top public servant, Martin Parkinson ignores those who employ him, the taxpayers, and declines to answer important questions from a Senate committee. 

Actually, all of these stories should also concern Australians. Martin Parkinson’s contempt for Parliament, the principal vehicle of our democracy, is breathtaking.  As we reported last month. Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked Parkinson to investigate whether former foreign minister Julie Bishop and defence minister Christopher Pyne had breached rules in the ministerial standards by taking new consultancy jobs so soon after leaving office. 

Parkinson concluded they had not, but a Senate inquiry into ministerial standards wants to know what led him to this conclusion. Parkinson has brushed them off by saying it would not be “worthwhile for him to provide further evidence”. Such arrogance by a high-ranking official 

Such arrogance by a high-ranking official is totally unacceptable. Australia’s ministerial standards fall  below those in similar democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom.  One reason the prime minister won the election was because the public preferred his straight forward approach to answering questions; he should order Parkinson to front up and do the same. 

Martin Parkinson

No matter about fake news. What about weird news?  President Donald Trump wants to buy Greenland; Hong Kong’s richest man, 91-year old Li Ka-shing snaps up one of Britain’s most loved and ancient breweries for 2.7 billion; Australia’s top public servant, Martin Parkinson ignores those who employ him, the taxpayers, and declines to answer important questions from a Senate committee. 

Actually, all of these stories should also concern Australians. Martin Parkinson’s contempt for Parliament, the principal vehicle of our democracy, is breathtaking.  As we reported last month. Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked Parkinson to investigate whether former foreign minister Julie Bishop and defence minister Christopher Pyne had breached rules in the ministerial standards by taking new consultancy jobs so soon after leaving office. 

Parkinson concluded they had not, but a Senate inquiry into ministerial standards wants to know what led him to this conclusion. Parkinson has brushed them off by saying it would not be “worthwhile for him to provide further evidence”. 

The lesson of the purchase pf Greene King by Li Ka-shing’s family company is an obvious one; it is what happens when you have a weak currency. Britain’s pound has been tumbling in value because of Brexit, making imports, including fuel and food more expensive for the Brits, but allowing foreigners to swoop and buy up desirable assets. So much for Boris Johnson’s ‘taking back control’. (Last week he turned to John Howard, in London for the cricket, for advice on how to run an immigration system).  However Australia also has a weak currency, and there are many bargains to be had, one reason why the share market should still provide value while world growth slows. 

The weird story I found the most interesting was Trump’s audacious bid for Greenland. Some saw this as a joke, but it should be taken seriously. It was not, as Denmark’s prime minister Lars Rasmussen suggest an “April Fool’s joke”. It’s not the first time the US has tried to buy the Danish island in the Arcit; it sought to do so after World War II in 1946 for the same strategic reasons as now. It has long had an important military base there, as part of its early warning system against a Russian nuclear strike. Trump also fears Russia could work with China to open up the Arctic region,in which case Greenland would be pivotal. Global warming and melting use also make it easier to access Greenland’s vast resources, another major reason for the president’s enthusiasm. Remember, he loves real estate, with or without golf courses.

So why should Australia be interested in this?  The answer is obvious. If he has not done so already, Trump will also be casting a covetous eye on Antarctica, especially given recent intelligence reports of intensifying Chinese interest in the southern ice cap.  After all this vast expanse has more to offer in future than Vanuatu. 

We often forget that Australia is the biggest player in Antarctica. The Australian Antarctic Territory covers nearly 5.9 million square kilometres, about 42 per cent of the whole. The facts are that Antarctica has been governed since 1959 through the Antarctic Treaty System set up by the 12 countries whose scientists were actively involved at the time.  The original signatories to the treaty – Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Chile, France, and Norway all have formal territorial claims to the Antarctic – other countries, including China and the US have bases or interests there.

These bases are supposed to be subjected to checks on what is going on within them by signatories to the treaty on a regular basis, but this does not seem to be happening.  ABC News reported in Aprilon an inspection of a US base within its territory in 2016, the only one of a foreign base in eight years. This has led international law expert Don Rothwell from the Australian National University to suggest that this inaction could put our territorial claim at risk.

“If we don’t effectively seek to manage that claim and exercise our sovereignty over that claim, well, then others will perceive some level of weakness in terms of Australia’s position,” he told the ABC.

There needs to be a Senate inquiry into the future of Australia’s Antarctic Territory, with questions asked, particularly about Chinese activity, and why Beijing’s bases have not been inspected. 

The most significant of these, reports the ABC, is at the high point of Antarctica’s vast ice sheet at the heart of Australian Antarctic Territory, and taking place in a decade of incredible Chinese expansion in the area.

Given that the Treaty forbids military activity and mineral or oil and gas exploration in Antarctica, we need to know precisely what all this Chinese activity involves. It is hardly a search for the Abomnable Snowman. 

We may wait a long time for Beijing to give us an answer.  But is certainly a strategic issue that should give foreign minister Marise Payne some concern. Maybe ScoMo should instruct Martin Parkinson to look into it?