It is almost 30 years since Australia, with other like-minded countries, carried a motion at the International Whaling Commission to introduce a moratorium against whaling, which came into full effect in 1986. From 1946 to 1978 Australia was at the IWC table as a whaling nation. But all that changed with the report of Sir Sydney Frost, and on adopting the report the Fraser Government rightly became one of the strongest advocates for the moratorium. That the moratorium has been a success is clear from the recovering population levels of many species.
Despite a reservation by Norway, Japan agreed with the moratorium but has made claims in the decades since that some of the issues in the moratorium package were not followed through as agreed.
The Keating government played a key role in establishing the Southern Ocean Sanctuary in 1994, and the dynamics of that development should have ensured a more rapid resolution of whaling issues. And yet governments consistently refused to see the need for more research funding and activity on whales and the Southern Ocean ecosystem as a whole, until the announcement in 2008 of funding to develop non-lethal research programs. Such funding is welcome to demonstrate that non-lethal research yields valuable results and can replace lethal research. While lethal research programs are almost certainly not necessary to the extent Japan undertakes them, or even at all, by undertaking almost no research of any significance during the past 30 years Australia cannot contribute usefully to the scientific debate. Even now, by pursuing a curious (and I believe fruitless) international legal challenge against Japan, instead of using the money that challenge will consume to add to the less than adequate amount allocated for the research, Australia is missing the point.
The Canberra Timeson Saturday (p 12) carried an article entitled ''Take the emotion out of whaling, says Japan''. Like many other stories this simply rehearses the well-known positions of Australia and Japan. The article quotes Japan's Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs as saying ''The media has a very important role and should report fair. What is the real issue? And what is the difference between the two countries?'' Who can argue with that? But with seemingly unconscious irony the article went on to say ''The Australian government is seeking an international legal ruling against Japan's so-called scientific whaling'', emphasis mine. It is not so-called; it was established under the convention, a convention to which Australia has been a party since 1946. We may not like it, but we can't pretend it doesn't exist, and it is difficult to say Japan is not in accord with those provisions of the convention
There must be at least one PhD study on why the Australian political parties, whether they are in government or opposition, have such a trenchant, immoveable position on an issue which is largely one of animal welfare, against other more local welfare issues such as kangaroo culling, live sheep export, let alone the practices of abattoirs. I am certainly not advocating these practices are all necessarily wrong or bad but we need a balance in dealing with what's in our backyard before casting stones in the global glasshouse. At least one minister I worked to when I mentioned I needed to brief them on whales and I asked if they would respond with the head or heart unhesitatingly responded ''heart''. At that my own sank.
It may not feel good but the Japanese are largely right. We do need a much saner dialogue, in which Australia puts away its placards and Japan puts away its chopsticks, and we start to discuss the real issues, perhaps bilaterally at first and then constructively in the IWC. And there are cultural issues that need discussion in a calm environment - the IWC has to deal with aboriginal subsistence whaling which has lacked an appropriate level of scrutiny simply because of the focus on scientific whaling.
Working together, Japan and Australia, as two nations with generally strong scientific communities, and a long history of work in the Southern Ocean, could rapidly aid much more understanding about the dynamics of the biodiversity of the southern ocean; and how we can best manage it into an increasingly uncertain future for the benefit of we puny creatures and the really charismatic creatures who call it their home.
Surely after 30 years we are mature enough.
Peter Bridgewater was Australian commissioner to the IWC from 1990-97 and chairman of the IWC from 1995-97