Reflecting on an Antarctic legacy

Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke with former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard, during 20th anniversary celebrations of the signing of the Madrid Protocol in 2011
Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke (right) with former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard, during 20th anniversary celebrations of the signing of the Madrid Protocol in 2011. (Photo: Glenn Jacobson)

Protecting the Antarctic environment became a cause célèbre for Australia’s Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, in 1989.

At the time he caused something of a stir by going against the prevailing international view that mining was an inevitable part of Antarctica’s future. In fact the Antarctic Treaty nations had already adopted the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities.

However, that didn’t sit well with Mr Hawke and he set about ensuring that the Convention, and, in his view, the unacceptable future scenario of mining in Antarctica, would not proceed. Through a close alliance with his French and Spanish counterparts, and with strong support from conservation groups, Mr Hawke led intensive diplomatic efforts to promote an international treaty on comprehensively protecting Antarctica.

The result was the Madrid Protocol, which established a permanent and legally binding ban on mining or mineral resource activity in Antarctica and proclaims Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science.

During Mr Hawke’s visit to Antarctica this year, to open a Wilkins Runway facility named in his honour, he spoke candidly about his role in establishing the protocol.

‘I could not believe that civilized nations of the world were going to destroy the pristine quality of the last remaining pristine continent, by implementing the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities.

‘You just imagine mining down here and the accidents that could have occurred, so I was determined that this wouldn’t happen. People said we had no chance, but with the cooperation of my good friend Michel Rocard, the Prime Minister of France, and Felipe Gonzalez, from Spain, we turned it over, which was marvellous. Now it’s fulfilled my nomination of it as nature reserve and a land of science.

‘I’ve got a great sense of proprietorship over the place because I’ve been involved in seeing that it was preserved. It’s almost impossible to describe the feeling of pride and excitement that I have being here. The other immediate impression I have is the enthusiasm of all the people that are here.

‘The work that they are doing is not only important for Australia but important for the world. And they should feel proud of themselves for the contribution that their colleagues in the past have made and that they are making now. I would like to congratulate the Australian Antarctic Division. I think the work that you are doing in protecting the Australian commitment and involvement in this area, and doing it in such a constructive way is a matter in which you should all be very proud.’

Corporate Communications
Australian Antarctic Division

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