New Director looks forward to Antarctic future

Just as heroic era explorer and scientist Douglas Mawson looked to the future of Australia in Antarctica 100 years ago, so too is new Australian Antarctic Division Director Dr Tony Fleming.

His arrival at the Antarctic Division coincides with the centenary of Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition – a time of personal reflection for Dr Fleming, whose family tree includes three figures in Antarctic history.

Dr Fleming credits his mother – the daughter of eminent Antarctic scientist Dr Raymond Priestley (and niece of Charles ‘Silas’ Wright and Thomas Griffith Taylor; all of whom were part of Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition) – as a major influence on his interest in the science of the natural world.

‘My mother made sure I understood the Antarctic stories. Grandad was a scientist and Scott’s expedition was about science as well as exploration. So I learnt about the history of science and human habitation in Antarctica,’ Dr Fleming says.

‘I also learnt the value of looking to the future, rather than just memorialising the past, and the importance of scientific inquiry and keeping an open mind.’

Subsequently, Dr Fleming’s 34-year career has seen him tackle issues ranging from land conservation, environmental policy and legislation, urban planning, national park management, and the provision of essential services to small communities.

While his work has primarily focused on the big picture, he knows the value of ‘bread and butter’ activities essential to the delivery of strategic end products. And he’s driven by a passion for protecting the environment, and human interaction with the environment.

During his first year at the University of New England in Armidale (NSW), where he studied botany and plant ecology, Dr Fleming was drawn to conservation activities that took him into the bush on most weekends. Here he became interested in the patterns and processes of ecological communities. He also indulged his enthusiasm for white-water kayaking and nature photography.

‘In my first year of uni I aimed to just get passes in my subjects, so that I could get into the bush as much as possible. That’s where my future crystallised for me,’ Dr Fleming says.

Dr Fleming produced a book of his photos (see two examples above) taken during his trip to the Ross Sea earlier this year, which reflects his love of the natural world.

After completing a PhD in biology, he was offered a position in Environment Minister, Senator Graham Richardson’s office. Over the next six years he worked at Parliament House, directly contributing to Federal Government decisions on the environment. He was also involved in initiatives that influenced government environmental policy, including the National Reserve System and State of the Environment reporting. Later, he coordinated the Department of the Environment’s input into legislative reforms that led to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act, 1999).

In 1998 Dr Fleming joined the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, initially as Director of the southern region, but later as Head of the organisation. Here he oversaw the growth and management of the NSW National Park system, cultural heritage protection, wildlife conservation and marine park management, among other things.

‘Administering a national park is not just about setting policy, but ensuring that on a day-to-day basis the organisation runs effectively and that it can deliver the services it needs to individual parks and their communities,’ Dr Fleming says.

‘For example, the Government had responsibility for municipal services in Perisher ski village, so I got some experience in managing core infrastructure in an alpine community. While Perisher is a very different community to that in Antarctica, some of the issues are similar.’

One experience Dr Fleming will no doubt draw upon as he takes the Antarctic Division’s reins is his former chairmanship of the Lord Howe Island Board of Management. This tiny island in the Pacific Ocean is inscribed on the World Heritage list for the global significance of its natural beauty and heritage.

‘Lord Howe is a fascinating example of an active and vibrant community in one of the most incredible natural places,’ Dr Fleming says.

‘The Board had to focus on big policy pictures, but also the delivery of essential services. So we’d spend some time talking about World Heritage values and then we’d switch the conversation to power generation or sewage treatment.

‘I learnt how a small community operates and observed the strength of a community in defending the interests of the island and each other.’

His most recent experience as National Operations Manager with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, may also guide his approach to Antarctic duties. The not-for-profit organisation manages over 2.5 million hectares of Australian landscapes for the conservation of threatened wildlife and ecosystems, using a conservation model that Dr Fleming says ‘allows science to drive management decisions’.

After only four weeks in the Director’s seat at the time of our conversation, Dr Fleming says it’s too early for him to be able to talk about the strategic direction of a very complex operation, but he does have some general observations.

‘It’s clear the Antarctic Division has an important role to play in developing the underpinning science for a number of key government policy areas, including climate-related science and marine research, particularly the sustainable use of resources in the Southern Ocean,’ he says.

‘The Antarctic Division also has a leadership role in the scientific community, and our new science strategic plan will set the direction for research done by us and others.

‘But our bread and butter activities are also critical. High profile activities can only happen if we do a lot of other things really well. Working in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean is a complex logistical exercise and the Division spends a lot of time and resources managing all of that – the stations, transport and communications. So we need to make sure we’re doing that effectively and that we’re on a path to be able to continue to deliver those services in 20 years time. Achieving a balance between investment in operations and investment in science will be a challenge for me and the Executive.’

Dr Fleming also sees his role as a supportive one.

‘Being the Director is, in part, about making sure people are supported to work to the best of their abilities, and that they’re given the space to do that. There’s enormous talent in the Division and many people who know much more about a topic than I will ever know. So I see my role as supporting and encouraging staff, while articulating a strategic focus in line with government priorities.’

Dr Fleming hopes to visit Australia’s four stations over summer to talk to staff. He’s already had some experience of Antarctica after a private trip to the Ross Sea earlier this year to mark the centenary of Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition (1910–1913). Dr Fleming traced the footsteps of his grandfather, Raymond Priestley, visiting Cape Adare, Cape Royds and Cape Evans. He also went to Inexpressible Island where his grandfather and the other five members of Scott’s Northern Party spent an unplanned winter in an ice cave, when the Terra Nova was unable to break through the pack ice to collect them. In what has become one of the most extraordinary stories of Antarctic survival, the Northern Party not only had to endure the winter but then had to man-haul sledges 250 miles back to Cape Evans.

When the Northern Party eventually learnt of Scott’s fate, Dr Priestley and his friend Frank Debenham discussed an appropriate legacy for the lost explorers.

‘Frank and my grandfather thought the legacy should be something to do with science and looking forward, so they created the idea of a polar research institute, which became the Scott Polar Research Institute, with Frank as its first Director,’ Dr Fleming says.

This philosophy of looking forward and thinking to the future of Australia’s involvement in Antarctica will form the keystone of Dr Fleming’s approach to the Director’s job.

‘The key lesson I took from my grandfather is to look forward. What’s the next 20 or 50 years in Antarctica going to be about?’ he says.

‘It’s a different geopolitical environment now than it was in grandad’s day and there are new nations that are interested in Antarctica and in cooperating with Australia in Antarctica.

‘While the centenary provides an opportunity for Australia to focus on the achievements of early explorers, especially Mawson and his team, it’s important to look to the future of Australia’s involvement in Antarctica, as Mawson did, and I hope we can maintain and further develop our role as a leader in Antarctica.’

Wendy Pyper
Corporate Communications, Australian Antarctic Division