Tourism management in Antarctica, liability for any damage done and the first permanent secretariat for the Antarctic Treaty system will be some of the issues that Australia will try to resolve at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) and the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) in Madrid next week.

The Parliamentary Secretary for the Antarctic Dr Sharman Stone said that a major element of this year’s meeting would be defining rules and procedures relating to the liability for environmental damage in Antarctica.

“The Madrid Protocol provides for these all-important liability rules but they have not been completed. Without them there is no obligation to clean up if an environmental emergency occurred, for example, if a ship ran aground and spilled fuel,” Dr Stone said.

“As far as Australia is concerned, without countries accepting liability the Treaty cannot give maximum environment protection. There are some large Antarctic tourist ships now cruising into some of the most dangerous waters in the world. We need to ensure that any accident is quickly dealt with and paid for by those responsible,” said Dr Stone.

Dr Stone also said that the increase in tourism and adventure expeditions to Antarctica would receive special attention at the ATCM.

“Antarctica’s remoteness, fragility and uniqueness are some of its greatest attractions to tourists. We want proper measures put in place to manage these visitors and ensure that their activities are safe and environmentally sustainable. Australia will be seeking consensus with other parties on effective guidelines to achieve this,” Dr Stone said.

The Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) will be held in conjunction with the ATCM.

Dr Stone pointed out that this was the first time an Australian would have the honour of chairing the CEP, which provides essential advice on environmental measures.

The Director of the Australian Antarctic Division, Dr Tony Press, was elected to the position in 2002.

“Dr Press’ appointment to this post is clear recognition of Australia’s long commitment to the Antarctic Treaty and our determination to ensure that Antarctica is the last great wilderness, dedicated to peace and science,” Dr Stone said.

“As new technology is used in Antarctica, making it easier and safer to travel and live on the continent, it is important to make certain that our impact upon the environment will have minimal effect.

“A footprint on Antarctic lichen is still there 10 years later,” Dr Stone said.

“We have to make sure that this generation does not repeat mistakes of the past where we drove species to near extinction, and left a legacy of waste accumulated in some places.

“Australia’s aim is to encourage all Treaty parties to have the same agreed standards of environmental protection on the great Antarctic continent.

“We will also be putting forward plans for specially managed and protected areas in Antarctica, as well as pursuing greater protection of Antarctic species,” Dr Stone said.

Dr Stone said that Australia had been actively supportive of the establishment of the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat saying that a permanent home would mean much-needed improvement in the way work is done under the 40-year old Treaty.

“The Treaty is the only international agreement of such importance not to have a permanent home. The 2001 decision by Treaty parties to set up a Secretariat was a practical step forward. Now we have to get it working.

“Cost-sharing arrangements and the legal mechanism for its operation still need to be resolved,” Dr Stone said.